A pair of UMBC physicists used data from the Hubble telescope to enhance understanding about black hole science. In doing so, they provided the first evidence of what happens when plasma jets collide.
In a study recently published in the journal Nature, Eileen Meyer and Markos Georganopoulos reported on how the beguiling beams of radiation interact as they stream away from a black hole at 98 percent of the speed of light.
Over the last 25 years, the Hubble photographed a “supermassive black hole,” which sits at the center of the eliptical galaxy 3C 264, located 260 million light years away from Earth.
Meyer and Georganopoulos found evidence of one of the jets, which assumed a “string of pearls” structure as it streamed away from the black hole. When the photos were assembled into the astronomical equivalent of a time-lapse movie, they found a second, faster jet colliding at the rear.
This produced a “shock collision,” which made the particles a lot brighter, and faster. Astronomers initially said it looked like the jet was moving seven times faster than the speed of light, but that turned out to be an opitcal illusion.
Scientists have hypothesized that the jets of plasma got their energy as a result of faster jets running into slower ones, but evidence has remained elusive. The Baltimore team was the first to confirm that it happened.
“Something like this has never been seen before in an extragalactic jet,” said Meyer, who is finishing up a postdoc at Baltimore’s Space Telescope Science Institute — which serves as the science operations center for Hubble — before moving to UMBC.
The collision will continue over the next few decades. Along with rubbernecking at the crash, astronomers will be looking at how the particles dissipate out into space.
“This will allow us a very rare opportunity to see how the kinetic energy of the collision is dissipated into radiation,” she said.