Hubble Witness to Relativistic Crash in a Black Hole Jet

BY IAN O’NEILL, Discovery News – June 4, 2015 – Often we mistakenly view astronomy as a static science — the distant universe is constant and unchanging, right? Not only is this mindset woefully inaccurate, astronomers can also prove it over timescales of only a few years.

Take, for example, this stunning observation by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Astronomers have stitched together 20 years-worth of images of the spiral galaxy NGC 3862, which is located some 260 million light-years from Earth, and revealed a stunning relativistic collision inside the jet of material blasting from the galaxy’s central black hole.

NEWS: Supermassive Black Hole Jet Mystery Solved

This is one rare time that such a jet, stretching thousands of light-years from the center of a galaxy, has been observed using an optical telescope. Normally, these jets are only visible in X-ray and radio wavelengths, a factor that is currently a puzzle to astronomers.

The dynamics of black holes, particularly the mechanisms behind the powerful jets of hot plasma that are often observed emanating from active black holes, are largely a mystery. So when astronomers were able to create a time-lapse of NGC 3862′s central supermassive black hole, they were excited to not only see motion in those jets, but also bright knots in the jet material “rear-end” one another, causing a rapidly brightening “blob”.