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NewsM87 galaxy with the cosmic digestive system

M87 galaxy with the cosmic digestive system

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New observations of the spectacular M87 galaxy reveal how a powerful jet forms around a monstrous black hole contained inside it.

A few years ago, the image of an orange glowing donut caused a sensation. For the first time, researchers have captured an image of the immediate vicinity of a supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy M87

This galaxy is known for a jet that accelerates matter far out of the galaxy, driven by the central black hole. How exactly the jet is anchored near the black hole and how the matter streams into the jet is not yet fully understood.

Astronomers, with the participation of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, are now providing new answers. With a network of radio telescopes almost as large as the Earth itself, they are using the example of M87 to make the matter flows in the extreme centre of a galaxy visible for the first time.

Artist’s impression of the centre of an active galaxy like M87. Matter flows along a disk towards the central black hole, while some matter is accelerated along a focused jet. Image credit: Sophia Dagnello, NRAO/AUI/NSF

It is assumed that the enormous brightness and activity at the centre of a galaxy like M87 is due to matter from the surrounding area falling into the black hole at the centre of the galaxy.

However, some of the matter is also channelled out of this region via a jet. In the case of the galaxy M87, there have already been separate images of the innermost disc of matter around the central black hole and the jet.

It was previously unclear how the jet, which remains collimated to the galaxy’s edges, forms in the vicinity of the black hole.

The image that was now obtained establishes the connection for the first time. “We see how the jet emerges from the ring around the black hole and gain new insights into the physical processes that give rise to the jet,” says Thomas Krichbaum from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy.

image 3 M87 galaxy with the cosmic digestive system
Reconstructed image of the central region of M87 from data from the telescope network consisting of the GMVA and Alma. The large image shows a bright core with the black hole at its centre. The jet, recognisable by three filaments, is anchored in this core and originates there. An enlargement of the core in the highlighted box shows the ring structure of matter surrounding the black hole. The ring has an angular diameter of 64 microarcseconds, comparable to the diameter of a concert spotlight on the moon as seen from Earth. Image credit: R. Lu et al, Nature 2023

A giant telescope does detailed work

The international research team obtained the image by observing the radio light at a wavelength of 3,5 millimetres. This allows an almost unobscured view onto the radio-bright matter streams that surround the central black hole, and that fuel the jet.

Seen from Earth, this inner region appears only about as large as a concert spotlight on the Moon, corresponding to an angular diameter of 64 microarcseconds. At a distance of the galaxy of about 55 million light years, this corresponds to a few times the diameter of our solar system.

In order to resolve these structures, which are tiny when seen from Earth, the researchers use an array of many radio telescopes. The larger the network and the further apart the individual telescopes are, the smaller the structures that can be imaged.

The wavelength that the radio receivers are tuned into also define the image. The shorter the wavelength, the finer the structures that can be imaged.

The central component of the network is the Global Millimetre VLBI Array (GMVA), which spans Europe and North and South America with more than a dozen individual telescopes. To improve the imaging quality, the team also added the Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array (Alma) and the Greenland Telescope.

Only through the special arrangement of the telescopes and the choice of the wavelength of 3,5 millimetres were the scientists able to image the galaxy’s central engine and how matter flows into the black hole and is accelerated outwards in a jet.

They observed the galaxy’s core back in April 2018 and took years to interpret the data and reconstruct the image.

image 4 M87 galaxy with the cosmic digestive system
Labelled image of the M87 Galaxy. Credit: NASA/Chandra

“The spectacular image of the jet and ring in M87 is an important milestone and crowns years of collaborative effort,” says Eduardo Ros, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy.

The image of the nucleus of M87, which astronomers had succeeded in obtaining a few years earlier with a different telescope configuration, the Event Horizon Telescope at a wavelength of 1,3 millimetres, is characterised by an even stronger zoom factor. It mainly shows matter in a comparatively narrow ring in the immediate vicinity of the black hole. This donut-like image marked the black hole itself for the first time.

Tracing the boundaries of physics

For J. Anton Zensus, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, these successes show that the years of development and continuous expansion of the technology of these global radio telescope networks have paid off. But the limits of this high-resolution observation technique have not yet been reached.

New, even more sensitive radio receivers of the GMVA telescope should enable the astronomers to make further detailed measurements. In addition to the light intensity, which has been imaged here, other properties of the radio light can also be extracted.

The polarisation, for example, mimics the structure and strength of the underlying magnetic field that surrounds the black hole and shapes the jet. Matter that is visible via its radio emission in the presented image, moves along these invisible magnetic field lines.

These and other measurement techniques make it possible to study the physical processes in the immediate vicinity of a black hole, billion times heavier than the sun, which embodies the limits of physics.

M87 galaxy: Key Facts

  1. The M87 galaxy is also known as Virgo A or Messier 87. It was the 87th object cataloged by French astronomer Charles Messier.
  2. It is located in the Virgo constellation and is part of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. It is approximately 53.5 million light-years away from Earth.
  3. The M87 galaxy is one of the largest galaxies in the nearby universe. It has an estimated diameter of about 120,000 light-years, making it significantly larger than our Milky Way galaxy.
  4. M87 is famous for hosting one of the most massive black holes known to astronomers. The black hole at its center has a mass of about 6.5 billion times that of our Sun and is surrounded by a rotating disk of hot gas and plasma.
  5. This galaxy also features a prominent jet of high-energy particles emanating from its central black hole. The jet extends over 5,000 light-years and emits radiation across various wavelengths, including radio waves, visible light, and X-rays.
  6. M87 is classified as an elliptical galaxy, which means it has an elliptical or football-like shape. It lacks the distinct spiral arms seen in spiral galaxies like the Milky Way.
  7. It is one of the brightest galaxies in the Virgo Cluster. It has a visual magnitude of around 9.6, making it visible with binoculars or small telescopes under favorable conditions.
  8. Like other galaxies, M87 is believed to be surrounded by a halo of dark matter, a mysterious substance that does not emit or interact with light but exerts gravitational influence.
  9. M87 has interacted with other galaxies in the Virgo Cluster, leading to the formation of tidal tails and distortions in its outer regions.
  10. M87 has been extensively studied by the Hubble Space Telescope, providing detailed images and data on its structure, jet, and black hole.

Source: MPG

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