Powerful jets of charged particles race into space from the galaxy 3C 348 in this combined optical and radio image. The jets are powered by a black hole roughly 2.5 billion times as massive as the Sun. Gas and dust around the black hole are accelerated to high speeds as they circle toward the black hole. Strong magnetic fields direct some of this material into space from above the black hole's poles. Such jets of material can travel at almost the speed of light and stretch across hundreds of thousands of light-years. This image combines an optical view of the galaxy from Hubble Space Telescope with a radio view of the jets from the Very Large Array in New Mexico. [NASA/ESA/S. Baum and C. O'Dea (RIT)/R. Perley and W. Cotton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)]
Everything about M87 is big. The galaxy spans a million light-years, and is perhaps 200 times as massive as our home galaxy, the Milky Way. A black hole that’s many times bigger than our own solar system sits at the galaxy’s heart, encircled by a disk of superhot gas. And “jets” of charged particles shoot out from the black hole’s poles, stretching across hundreds of thousands of light-years.
Similar jets shoot away from many black holes. They’re powered by the disks of hot gas and by strong magnetic fields.
The gas comes from interstellar clouds, winds from nearby stars, or stars that have been pulled apart by a black hole’s gravity. As atoms in the disk drop closer to the black hole, they move faster and faster. They get so hot that they’re ripped apart, producing a soup of electrically charged particles.
The spinning disk also produces a powerful magnetic field. And the black hole may spin as well, also generating a strong magnetic field.
The field may catch some of the charged particles in the disk, hurling them back out into space from above the black hole’s poles in long, narrow jets.
For a black hole that’s as massive as a star, the jets typically fire outward at a few million miles per hour. But for a supermassive black hole, like the one at the center of M87, the jets get close to the speed of light. Such jets can last as long as there’s gas to feed them — beaming into the universe for millions or billions of years.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014
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