Gigantic Jet in Dark Heart of the Nearest Radio Galaxy Imaged in Unprecedented Detail

Composition of images of Centaurus A in the optical range (ESO/WFI) and X-rays (NASA/CXC/CfA). Centaurus A is a massive galaxy that is in the process of merging with a neighboring spiral.
Credits: ESO/WFI (Optical), MpIfR/ESO/Apex/ A.Weiss et al. (submillimeter); NASA/CXC/CfA/R. Kraft et al. (X-rays)

An international team anchored by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration, which is known for capturing the first image of a black hole in the galaxy Messier 87, has now imaged the heart of the nearby radio galaxy Centaurus A in unprecedented detail. The astronomers pinpoint the location of the central supermassive black hole and reveal how a gigantic jet is being born. Most remarkably, only the outer edges of the jet seem to emit radiation, which challenges our theoretical models of jets. This work, led by Michael Janssen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn and Radboud University Nijmegen is published in Nature Astronomy today (July 19th, 2021).

At radio wavelengths, Centaurus A emerges as one of the largest and brightest objects in the night sky. After it was identified as one of the first known extragalactic radio sources in 1949, Centaurus A has been studied extensively across the entire electromagnetic spectrum by a variety of radio, infrared, optical, X-ray, and gamma-ray observatories. At the center of Centaurus A lies a black hole with the mass of 55 million suns, which is right between the mass scales of the Messier 87 black hole (six and a half billion suns) and the one in the center of our own galaxy (about four million suns).

In a new paper in Nature Astronomy, data from the 2017 EHT observations have been analyzed to image Centaurus A in unprecedented detail. “This allows us for the first time to see and study an extragalactic radio jet on scales smaller than the distance light travels in one day. We see up close and personally how a monstrously gigantic jet launched by a supermassive black hole is being born,” says astronomer Michael Janssen.

Compared to all previous high-resolution observations, the jet launched in Centaurus A is imaged at a tenfold higher frequency and sixteen times sharper resolution. With the resolving power of the EHT, we can now link the vast scales of the source, which are as big as 16 times the angular diameter of the Moon on the sky, to their origin near the black hole in a region of merely the width of an apple on the Moon when projected on the sky. That is a magnification factor of one billion.

Understanding jets

Supermassive black holes residing in the center of galaxies like Centaurus A are feeding off gas and dust that is attracted by their enormous gravitational pull. This process releases massive amounts of energy and the galaxy is said to become ‘active’. Most matter lying close to the edge of the black hole falls in. However, some of the surrounding particles escape moments before capture and are blown far out into space: Jets — one of the most mysterious and energetic features of galaxies — are born.

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