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May 4, 2017

Most of the matter that passes too close to a black hole will get a one-way trip to oblivion: It’ll vanish into the black hole. But some of that matter may instead get a quick trip back out into space. That’s because many black holes produce jets of charged particles. The biggest of them can span thousands of light-years, and can squirt away at close to the speed of light.

In fact, similar jets are found in other astronomical objects — from infant stars to dead stars.

Scientists still aren’t certain just how these jets form. But the process involves disks of gas and dust and strong magnetic fields. The material in a disk spirals toward the central object — a young star, for example, or a dead star such as a white dwarf, a neutron star, or a black hole.

Friction in the disk heats the material enough to rip atoms apart, creating streamers of charged particles. Magnetic fields then grab some of these particles and shoot them into space from the poles of the central object as narrow high-speed jets.

Those from young stars can stretch across billions of miles. But those from supermassive black holes at the hearts of galaxies can span thousands of light-years. And the black hole’s powerful gravity can accelerate them to much higher speeds — in some cases, just a bit below lightspeed.

As these jets ram into material in the galaxy around the black hole, they produce shockwaves and other dramatic effects — the fate of matter escaping from a black hole.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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