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Spectacular jets
December 6, 2012 9:11 AM   Subscribe

Spectacular jets powered by the gravitational energy of a supermassive black hole in the core of the elliptical galaxy Hercules A (pdf) illustrate the combined imaging power of two of astronomy's cutting-edge tools, the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera 3, and the recently upgraded Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in west-central New Mexico.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar (30 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oddly familiar...
posted by Sys Rq at 9:25 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow. Space is amazing.

Is it weird that I'm kinda terrified by this?
posted by MsVader at 9:27 AM on December 6, 2012


From the Youtube link ...

Far out in space, in the center of the seething cosmic maelstrom, extreme heat, high velocities -- atoms tear and space literally buckles. Photons fly out across the universe, energized to the limits found in nature.

I approve of this universe.
posted by philip-random at 9:39 AM on December 6, 2012


I was thinking "jets" as in "planes" and was all, "whoa".
posted by Legomancer at 9:44 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


reminds me of a Brian Eno song
posted by philip-random at 9:49 AM on December 6, 2012


Is it weird that I'm kinda terrified by this?

Well normally I'd say no - it's a perfectly normal response, but on the other hand I'd have thought MsVader might be comfortably familiar with giant death beams in space.
posted by edd at 9:50 AM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


oddly enough, i was just looking at the center of our own milky way galaxy...but my favorite picture has to be this gif of the black hole at its very center (small, b&w, 3rd from the bottom)...why my favorite? because it ISN'T shooting out supermassive jets of hot radioactive death. (srsly, this thing must be stopped!)
posted by sexyrobot at 9:51 AM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Nothing makes you feel like insignificant space bacteria more than "tremendous plasma jets over one million light years long". Yeesh.
posted by selfnoise at 9:54 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


reminds me of a Brian Eno song

More like this.
posted by Shoggoth at 10:21 AM on December 6, 2012


"...shooting out supermassive jets of hot radioactive death..."

Crap. Got me to thinking about my 2nd ex-wife. Thanks MeFi.
posted by mule98J at 10:34 AM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wow, a million light years long? How can that be if the universe is only 6400 years old? Come on people, there is clearly a NASA cover-up in operation.

Also, why don't the black holes at the centre of the galaxies just eat the galaxies? Why are we not spiralling inward with the earth being ripped to pieces?
posted by marienbad at 10:39 AM on December 6, 2012


marienbad: Black holes don't exert any more pull at a distance than their mass (so a solar mass black hole where the Sun is would leave us in the same orbit, albeit a rather darker orbit). The central black holes of galaxies are very massive, but not that massive compared to the galaxy as a whole (~a million solar masses compared to 100 billion for example), so overall they don't influence much except the very central bit of the galaxy gravitationally.
posted by edd at 10:44 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is "hot" the right word for these plasma jets? How could a plasma jet remain hot for a million years without active fusion keeping it hot?

I've seen lots of pictures of black holes with jets shooting out the "top" and "bottom." Are there any pictures of a black hole with it's jet pointing straight at us?
posted by straight at 10:49 AM on December 6, 2012


Straight, Just this little tyke, sorry for the Fox News link. Its still 8000 light years away.
posted by sfts2 at 11:04 AM on December 6, 2012


Are there any pictures of a black hole with it's jet pointing straight at us?

That's essentially what many quasars are. New Scientist Jan 1989
posted by General Tonic at 11:10 AM on December 6, 2012


Oddly familiar...

For a second I thought you were Beowulf Shaeffer.

Also, why don't the black holes at the centre of the galaxies just eat the galaxies? Why are we not spiralling inward with the earth being ripped to pieces?

Technically, they are eating the galaxies they're in, but the timescale involved is similarly massive. The center of the galaxy is not just its geographical center, but also its gravitational center; the rotation of the arms of the galaxy is analogous to any object orbiting another, which is essentially a fall interrupted by perpendicular motion.

The ripping to pieces only happens when your object gets close enough to another object. Gravity is a force the operates on a parabolic scale, so at great distances there isn't much ripping, but close up there's a whole lot of it. Even here in an outer arm of the Milky Way we're probably subject to a solar collision as likely as we are to our own star death, but either of those is likely to happen 1/10 of 1% of the timescale it would take for the matter that makes up the Sun and Earth to get pulled to the center of the galaxy. Our atoms will probably be part of more than one solar system many more times before that happens.

Ultimately it's not clear, at least as I understand it, that most galaxies actually die this way -- there are more collisions and mergers and reconstitutions than deaths, because the universe is just that big and there's so much opportunity for the matter in galaxies to get recycled. I think there's a general sense that the stars in galaxies die long before the galaxies themselves. But this is literally right on the edge of science right now and there's more speculation than settled science.
posted by dhartung at 11:19 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the answers. I kinda wondered if (for any given star) the mass of a black hole formed from it would be significantly less than the mass of the star, I seem to recall them shedding layers before becoming black holes, hence losing mass.

The galaxy collision idea is so mind-blowing, I mean the milky way and andromeda colliding with one another at what relative velocity? hundreds of miles per hour? Just wow.

Great post. Thanks.

And I thank God that no-one took me serious about the 6400 years claim.
posted by marienbad at 11:26 AM on December 6, 2012


According to that New Scientist article, a quasar is when a black hole is pointing it's jet in our general direction, but if it's pointed straight at us we see it as a BL Lac object or a Blazar. (Blazars!)
posted by straight at 11:30 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


marienbad: "The galaxy collision idea is so mind-blowing, I mean the milky way and andromeda colliding with one another at what relative velocity? hundreds of miles per hour? Just wow. "

Here you go! General wikipedia article here.
posted by danny the boy at 12:08 PM on December 6, 2012


According to that New Scientist article, a quasar is when a black hole is pointing it's jet in our general direction, but if it's pointed straight at us we see it as a BL Lac object or a Blazar. (Blazars!)

Wait, so what's a quonsar then?

On Edit: I know, I know: $5 same as in town!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:57 PM on December 6, 2012


.
.
.
woah
posted by From Bklyn at 1:04 PM on December 6, 2012


Wow, it's not often that the subject "favorite picture of the galactic center" comes up, so I have to take advantage.

It's actually an animation showing stars orbiting the black hole at the center of the Milky Way over a period of about ten years. It plays through several times, zooming in at the end. The data were collected by Andrea Ghez and her group at UCLA. The location of the black hole is marked with a yellow cross (the black hole itself isn't visible), and you can see one star passes very close. The motion of this star gives the best present constraint on the mass of the black hole.

Her web page doesn't seem to be responding for me at the moment but I have a copy of the animation stashed away for a course I taught last year, which I've linked to above (I didn't have anything to do with the work).
posted by ngc4486 at 1:21 PM on December 6, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think you borked the link Messier87...oops I mean ngc4486 :) Surprisingly enough your moniker also has a plasma jet. Hmmmm, since you seem to be someone who would know, why do some galaxies like ngc 4486 only have one plasma jet while others like Hercules A have two?
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 1:35 PM on December 6, 2012


And speaking of favorite pictures of galactic center I think this one would have to be my favorite. It's a composite image of x-ray, infrared, and optical light as seen here.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 1:43 PM on December 6, 2012


an animation showing stars orbiting the black hole at the center of the Milky Way over a period of about ten years.

When it zoomed in and traced the very recognizable orbit of a star as it shot abruptly around something that wasn't visible, it made the hair of my neck stand straight up.

Monsters exist.
posted by CynicalKnight at 2:19 PM on December 6, 2012


AElfwine Evenstar: Or, not so surprisingly. :-)

Hmm, the link works fine for me, I have no explanation. It is to an mpg, though, maybe that's causing problems?

The physics of how these jets are formed is very poorly known. "We're pretty sure it has something to do with magnetic fields" is a fair summary of the field at the moment, although many people are actively working on it. So it's possible that the exact state of the gas and magnetic fields very near the black hole result in a jet being launched in one direction but not the other. The other possibility is that there is a jet on the other side but it's running into a dense cloud of gas so it doesn't propagate very far and we don't see it. The latter is a bit hard to believe for M87 since there's not much dense gas in the galaxy.
posted by ngc4486 at 2:40 PM on December 6, 2012


More proof that gas cooking ranges are best. What we have here are some super civilizations equivalent of a six burner viking range. I, for one, am looking forward to the crispy, yet fluffy, omelets.
posted by bswinburn at 3:34 PM on December 6, 2012


@straight Is "hot" the right word for these plasma jets? How could a plasma jet remain hot for a million years without active fusion keeping it hot?

Hot is exactly the right word. The temperature of a region is a measure of the kinetic energy (the product of mass and velocity) of particles in that region. An electron moving near the speed of light is very hot indeed. (The mass of these relativistic electrons is also much higher than that of electrons at rest ... some may have the mass of a mosquito!)

So long as very little force acts to slow it down, then (Newton's Law), the beam of coherent electrons keeps moving fast .. stays hot. As they bump into (what the gentleman in the video calls) "ambient material" (dust & gas in space), they lose energy ... and so are cooled. Eventually they are scattered in all directions; the average speed (so average temperature) of the region falls. They also block (and so cool) more outgoing electrons. So those "bulbs" will keep expanding.
posted by Twang at 9:24 PM on December 6, 2012


Is "hot" the right word for these plasma jets? How could a plasma jet remain hot for a million years without active fusion keeping it hot?
As Twang said, hot is appropriate. It's surprisingly difficult for some things to get cold in space. You can only lose heat by radiating it away, and while everyday objects are good at doing this (as you'll note when your ears radiatively couple to the night sky on a clear night) it can be pretty difficult for astrophysical gases to do the same - you need atoms to bump into one another to get their electrons excited so that they can radiate and without that happening a lot stuff just won't get very cold. In fact although space is very cold (the microwave background being -270 Celsius, -455 Fahrenheit), most (non-dark) matter in the universe is very hot. The gas in a galaxy cluster, which is most of the non-dark matter mass of it, is at temperatures of 10 million degrees C or more.
posted by edd at 4:17 AM on December 7, 2012


Wow, thanks Twang and edd! I love learning something about astronomy that's really different from what I thought it was.
posted by straight at 6:49 AM on December 7, 2012


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