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Mystery of enormous black holes blazing jets finally solved

Using data from the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) observatory researchers have offered an explanation for how these jets become so luminous.

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Black holes
Astronomers find that the best explanation for the particle acceleration is a shock wave within the jet. (Photo: Nasa)

In Short

  • Scientists have long sought to understand how the jets are launched from blazars
  • Blazars are supermassive black hole feeding off material swirling around it in a disk
  • Researchers studied the exotic object at the center of a large elliptical galaxy

By India Today Web Desk: Astronomers interested in solving the riddles of the universe have long been interested in understanding the mysterious forces working in and around a black hole, that are invisible in the sky but have the capability of ripping apart the worlds around it.

Scientists have long sought to understand how the jets launched from blazars become so luminous and the behavior of the particles in them. The jets from this blazar extend to a distance of about a million light years.

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Researchers have now solved the mystery of how blazars, supermassive black holes feeding off material swirling around it in a disk, unleash huge and blazingly bright jets of high-energy particles far into space.

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Using data from the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) observatory, researchers have offered an explanation for how these jets become so luminous. They found that subatomic particles called electrons become energized by shock waves moving at supersonic speed away from the black hole.

Blazar black hole
This illustration shows NASA’s IXPE spacecraft, at right, observing blazar Markarian 501, at left. A blazar is a black hole surrounded by a disk of gas and dust with a bright jet of high-energy particles pointed toward Earth. (Photo: Nasa)

In a new study in the journal Nature, astronomers find that the best explanation for the particle acceleration is a shock wave within the jet. “This is a 40-year-old mystery that we’ve solved. We finally had all of the pieces of the puzzle, and the picture they made was clear,” Yannis Liodakis, lead author of the study said.

The researchers studied an exotic object called a blazar at the center of a large elliptical galaxy named Markarian 501 located about 460 million light years away from Earth in the direction of the constellation Hercules. A light year is the distance light travels in a year, 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion km).

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Blazars are a subset of objects called quasars that are powered by supermassive black holes feeding on gas and other material at the center of galaxies and sending two jets of particles in opposite directions into space. Blazars are oriented such that one of their two jets from our vantage point on Earth is heading directly at us.

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The Earth-orbiting IXPE satellite, a collaboration between Nasa and the Italian Space Agency, provides a special kind of data that has never been accessible from space before. This new data includes the measurement of X-ray light’s polarization, meaning IXPE detects the average direction and intensity of the electric field of light waves that make up X-rays.

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The researchers found evidence that particles in the jet become energized when hit with a shock wave propagating outward inside the stream and emit X-rays as they accelerate. A shock wave is produced when something moves faster than the speed of sound through a medium like air - as a supersonic jet does as it flies through Earth's atmosphere - or a region with particles and magnetic fields called plasma, as in this case.

“The first X-ray polarisation measurements of this class of sources allowed, for the first time, a direct comparison with the models developed from observing other frequencies of light, from radio to very high-energy gamma rays. IXPE will continue to provide new evidence as the current data is analyzed and additional data is acquired in the future,” Immacolata Donnarumma, the project scientist for IXPE added.

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