Over the last few months, astronomers have captured several black holes feeding on their surroundings. First, we saw a black hole make a snack out of a large planet. Then, we saw Sagittarius A* – our central black hole – consume a gas cloud. Now, Hubble has complied 13 years of observations of another black hole – ultimately capturing very cool footage of a jet of super-heated gas erupting from the black hole. Overall, this jet extends more than 5,000 light-years across – forming a huge, intricate space slinky.
The black hole in question can be found in M87 – an elliptical galaxy located some 53 million light-years from Earth (in the constellation of Virgo). It – like most large galaxies – contains a central supermassive black hole, each generally hosting the combined mass of more than a billion suns. For the most part, the black holes remain hidden from view, this is particularly true for black holes like our own, which are obscured by thick pockets of interstellar dust clouds. The dense pockets make it extremely difficult to study black holes in their natural environment.
Because of this, astronomers keenly watch as black holes feed – providing them with a window of opportunity to understand the physical processes driving the formation of black holes – and their subsequent evolution. (Knowing this will also give insight into the role black holes play in galaxy evolution) This is particularly pertinent when dealing with Messier 87, as the galaxy is located relatively close-by (with the black hole being the closest one containing a jet that can be seen at optical wavelengths).
With the jet seen in this image (an animated video can be seen below) – astronomers watched as a stream of plasma was ejected from the black hole at exceptional speeds, before twisting and turning in a spiral motion. This observation indicates that the plasma observed may actually be traveling along the black hole’s immensely strong, helix-shaped magnetic field. The magnetic field is also tied into another poorly understood black hole phenomenon, called an accretion disk. In active galaxies – generally defined by regions undergoing continuous star formation activity – sometimes, more material will pile up around the event horizon (the point of no return) than the black hole can consume at any given time. Said material is prone to becoming extremely hot and very luminous, releasing a barrage of x-ray radiation, carrying along with it key information about the black holes they were emitted from.