Astronomers have captured a breathtaking radio wave image showing our nearest radioactive black hole that spews out massive rays of plasma that span more than 16 times the size of the full moon in our sky.
That supermassive black hole is located in the center of the galaxy Centaurus A about 12 million light-years away.
The black hole has a jaw-dropping mass of about 55 million suns, but it is not visible in the image. It would be located within the small empty field in the middle of the two butterfly wing-like patches.
Seen from Earth as it is in this image, the plasma erupting from Centaurus A’s black hole extends eight degrees across the sky, or the length of 16 full moons laid side by side.
If it’s not crazy enough, consider this for a moment – the dots in the background of the image are not stars. They are radio galaxies like Centaurus A that are much further away.
And the galaxy itself is not completely visible in this image, because the radio rays are over a million light-years long and extend far beyond Centaurus A.
Of course, these ‘radio bubbles’ of plasma, as they are called, are not visible to the human eye. It would be pretty spectacular (but also a little creepy) if they were.
They are visible in this image after radio wave emissions were captured by the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope, located in an isolated part of Western Australia, away from other radio interference. This is the first time we have been able to see it in such detail.
Above: A much closer look at Centaurus A, seen in visible light, as well as X-rays (blue) and infrared (orange).
It’s especially cool when you realize that the plasma in the giant bubbles moves close to the speed of light as it is pushed out as the black hole of Centaurus A sucks up nearby matter.
“These radio waves come from material being sucked into the supermassive black hole in the center of the galaxy,” said astronomer Benjamin McKinley of Curtin University in Western Australia.
“Previous radio observations could not handle the extreme brightness of the jets, and the details of the larger area around the galaxy were distorted, but our new image overcomes these limitations.”
The picture is not just amazing to look at – the research that comes with it has actually added support for a new model that is on the way, known as ‘Chaotic Cold Accretion’ or CCA.
“In this model, clouds of cold gas condense in the galactic halo and rain down on the central regions, feeding the supermassive black hole,” says astrophysicist Massimo Gaspari of the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics.
“Triggered by this rain, the black hole reacts strongly by sending energy back via radio beams that inflate the spectacular patches we see in the MWA image. This study is one of the first to probe in detail the multiphase CCA.” weather ‘across the full range of scales. “
MWA consists of 4,096 spider-like antennae that extend for kilometers, organized in 256 grids known as ’tiles’.
The research is published in Nature astronomy.