NASA’s Chandra Detects X-rays Emitted by Distant Supermassive Black Hole

Discovery shows distant supermassive black holes with relativistic jets could be more common than astronomers first thought 

This main panel graphic shows Chandra’s X-ray data that have been combined with an optical image from the Digitized Sky Survey. (Note that the two sources near the center of the image do not represent a double source, but rather a coincidental alignment of the distant jet and a foreground galaxy.) The inset shows more detail of the X-ray emission from the jet detected by Chandra. The length of the jet in 0727+409 is at least 300,000 light years. Many long jets emitted by supermassive black holes have been detected in the nearby Universe, but exactly how these jets give off X-rays has remained a matter of debate. In B3 0727+409, it appears that the CMB is being boosted to X-ray wavelengths. Credit: NASA/Chandra
This main panel graphic shows Chandra’s X-ray data that have been combined with an optical image from the Digitized Sky Survey. (Note that the two sources near the center of the image do not represent a double source, but rather a coincidental alignment of the distant jet and a foreground galaxy.)
The inset shows more detail of the X-ray emission from the jet detected by Chandra. 
Credit: NASA/Chandra

Space news (March 06, 2016) – over 11 billion light-years from Earth – 

Astronomers working with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory recently discovered a distant, powerful jet emanating from a quasar called B3 0727+409 while observing another stellar object. The system discovered was interesting because scientists had previously found very few early supermassive black holes with powerful jets giving off X-rays. This discovery has astronomers looking for data to confirm the belief supermassive black holes with powerful jets were more common during the first few billion years after the Big Bang than first thought. 

Astronomers were lucky to detect this quasar since no radio signal has been detected from this object. Normally, they would detect similar quasars using radio observations but will use this opportunity to study how these jets emit X-rays. This question has been a matter of debate among astrophysicists, but in this case, they have a few clues to follow.  

We essentially stumbled onto this remarkable jet because it happened to be in Chandra’s field of view while we were observing something else,” explains co-author Lukasz Stawarz of Jagiellonian University in Poland. 

The light from the jet emanating from quasar B3 0727+409 was emitted when the universe was only 2.7 billion years old, or just over twenty percent of its present age. At this time the intensity of the microwave background microwave radiation (CMB) remaining after the Big Bang was much greater than today. In this case, it looks like the CMB is somehow being boosted to X-ray wavelengths and astronomers think this could be a lead. 

Because we’re seeing this jet when the Universe was less than three billion years old, the jet is about 150 times brighter in X-rays than it would be in the nearby Universe,” said Aurora Simionescu at JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Studies (ISAS) who led the study.  

Computer simulations show that as electrons in the jet fly from the supermassive black hole at nearly the speed of light, they collide with microwave photons in the CMB and boost their energy into the X-ray band. This is the X-ray signal Chandra detected, but this means the electrons in the jet must continue to move at this speed for its entire length, which is over 300,000 light-years. A finding that has scientists scratching their heads. 

Astronomers have detected many long jets emitted by nearby supermassive black holes, but very few from early quasars with jets emitting X-rays. Astronomers could have missed many similar systems since they weren’t trying to detect them. Now, they’ll follow the breadcrumbs to get a better picture of the early universe and try to understand the evolution of supermassive black holes during the past 13.77 billion years a little better.    

Astronomers look for similar events to study in detail

Scientists have so far identified very few jets distant enough that their X-ray brightness is amplified by the CMB as clearly as in the B3 0727+409 system.” But, Stawarz adds, “if bright X-ray jets can exist with very faint or undetected radio counterparts, it means that there could be much more of them out there because we haven’t been systematically looking for them.” 

Supermassive black hole activity, including the launching of jets, may be different in the early Universe than what we see later on,” said co-author Teddy Cheung of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC. “By finding and studying more of these distant jets, we can start to grasp how the properties of supermassive black holes might change over billions of years.” 

You can take a video tour of B3 0727+409 aboard the Chandra X-ray Observatory here.

We’ll update you as astronomers learn more about relativistic jets and similar systems. 

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Read and discover more about quasar B3 0727+409