Magnetic Lines of Force Emanating from Supermassive Black Hole

Move like a whip with one end held firmly by the hand of the gravitational monster within 

This cartoon shows how magnetic waves, called Alfvén S-waves, propagate outward from the base of black hole jets. The jet is a flow of charged particles, called a plasma, which is launched by a black hole. The jet has a helical magnetic field (yellow coil) permeating the plasma. The waves then travel along the jet, in the direction of the plasma flow, but at a velocity determined by both the jet's magnetic properties and the plasma flow speed. The BL Lac jet examined in a new study is several light-years long, and the wave speed is about 98 percent the speed of light. Fast-moving magnetic waves emanating from a distant supermassive black hole undulate like a whip whose handle is being shaken by a giant hand, according to a study using data from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Long Baseline Array. Scientists used this instrument to explore the galaxy/black hole system known as BL Lacertae (BL Lac) in high resolution. Credits: NASA/JPL
This cartoon shows how magnetic waves, called Alfvén S-waves, propagate outward from the base of black hole jets. The jet is a flow of charged particles, called a plasma, which is launched by a black hole. The jet has a helical magnetic field (yellow coil) permeating the plasma. The waves then travel along the jet, in the direction of the plasma flow, but at a velocity determined by both the jet’s magnetic properties and the plasma flow speed. The BL Lac jet examined in a new study is several light-years long, and the wave speed is about 98 percent the speed of light.
Fast-moving magnetic waves emanating from a distant supermassive black hole undulate like a whip whose handle is being shaken by a giant hand, according to a study using data from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Long Baseline Array. Scientists used this instrument to explore the galaxy/black hole system known as BL Lacertae (BL Lac) in high resolution. Credits: NASA/JPL

Space news (astrophysics: supermassive black hole particle jets; Alfven S-waves) – 900 million light-years from Earth toward the constellation Lacerta, near the event horizon of the galaxy/monster supermassive black hole system called BL Lacertae (BL Lac) – 

The end of a whip moves faster than the speed of sound, creating a characteristic sound known to many humans familiar with this ancient weapon and all its variations. A sound that’s known for putting fear in the heart and sweat on the brow. But a whip trillions of miles long, moving at around 98 percent the speed of light and held in the gravitational grip of a supermassive black hole with a mass estimated to be around 200 million times that of Sol. A supermassive monster with a jet of charged particles with helical magnetic lines of force propagating from its base acts much like a gigantic, undulating cosmic whip held in its giant hand. 

In the artist’s rendition of quasar-like object BL Lac, above, magnetic waves called Alfven S-waves travel outward from the base of a jet launched from the supermassive black hole residing in its core. These waves were generated when magnetic field lines coming from the disk surrounding the black hole interacted with ions and twisted, coiled into a helical shape. Ions in the form of a particle jet ejected from the black hole at around 98 percent the speed of light with a helical magnetic field permeating through it like a titanic, crackling light-whip. A cosmic whip a few light-years in length, appearing to travel five times the speed of light, due to an optical illusion. Traveling at nearly the speed of light, slightly off the line of sight to Earth, our perception of how fast these Alfven S-waves are moving is thrown off as time slows down. Creating the visual illusion of movement at five times the speed of light. 

This artist's concept illustrates a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun. Supermassive black holes are enormously dense objects buried at the hearts of galaxies. (Smaller black holes also exist throughout galaxies.) In this illustration, the supermassive black hole at the center is surrounded by matter flowing onto the black hole in what is termed an accretion disk. This disk forms as the dust and gas in the galaxy falls onto the hole, attracted by its gravity. Also shown is an outflowing jet of energetic particles, believed to be powered by the black hole's spin. The regions near black holes contain compact sources of high energy X-ray radiation thought, in some scenarios, to originate from the base of these jets. This high energy X-radiation lights up the disk, which reflects it, making the disk a source of X-rays. The reflected light enables astronomers to see how fast matter is swirling in the inner region of the disk, and ultimately to measure the black hole's spin rate. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist’s concept illustrates a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun. Supermassive black holes are enormously dense objects buried at the hearts of galaxies. (Smaller black holes also exist throughout galaxies.) In this illustration, the supermassive black hole at the center is surrounded by matter flowing onto the black hole in what is termed an accretion disk. This disk forms as the dust and gas in the galaxy falls onto the hole, attracted by its gravity.
Also shown is an outflowing jet of energetic particles, believed to be powered by the black hole’s spin. The regions near black holes contain compact sources of high energy X-ray radiation thought, in some scenarios, to originate from the base of these jets. This high energy X-radiation lights up the disk, which reflects it, making the disk a source of X-rays. The reflected light enables astronomers to see how fast matter is swirling in the inner region of the disk, and ultimately to measure the black hole’s spin rate.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The waves are excited by a shaking motion of the jet at its base,” said David Meier, a now-retired astrophysicist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology, both in Pasadena. The team’s findings, detailed in the April 10 issue of The Astrophysical Journal, mark the first time so-called Alfvén (pronounced Alf-vain) waves have been identified in a black hole system. 

Retired astrophysicist David Meier. Credits: NASA/JPL
Retired astrophysicist David Meier. Credits: NASA/JPL

A cosmic whip!

The quasar-like object called BL Lac is believed to be powered by matter falling into a supermassive black hole at the core of this very bright galaxy. Astronomers detected the particle jets associated with the supermassive black hole at its core swinging back and forth and bending as Alfven waves propagated along the magnetic field lines emanating from its disk. 

“Imagine running a water hose through a slinky that has been stretched taut,” said first author Marshall Cohen, an astronomer at Caltech. “A sideways disturbance at one end of the slinky will create a wave that travels to the other end, and if the slinky sways to and fro, the hose running through its center has no choice but to move with it.” 

“A similar thing is happening in BL Lac,” Cohen said. “The Alfvén waves are analogous to the propagating sideways motions of the slinky, and as the waves propagate along the magnetic field lines, they can cause the field lines — and the particle jets encompassed by the field lines — to move as well.” 

“It’s common for black hole particle jets to bend — and some even swing back and forth. But those movements typically take place on timescales of thousands or millions of years. What we see is happening on a timescale of weeks,” Cohen said. “We’re taking pictures once a month, and the position of the waves is different each month.” 

“By analyzing these waves, we are able to determine the internal properties of the jet, and this will help us ultimately understand how jets are produced by black holes,” said Meier. 

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Supermassive Black Hole in Small Galaxy NGC 5195 Burps After a Meal

Producing a super powerful blast observed by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory

ngc5195
The main panel of this graphic shows M51 in visible light data from the Hubble Space Telescope (red, green, and blue). The box at the top of the image outlines the field of view by Chandra in the latest study, which focuses on the smaller component of M51, NGC 5195. The inset to the right shows the details of the Chandra data (blue) of this region. Researchers found a pair of arcs in X-ray emission close to the center of the galaxy, which they interpret as two outbursts from the galaxy’s supermassive black hole (see annotated image for additional information). Credits: NASA/Chandra

Space news (February 22, 2016) – 26 million light-years from Earth, deep within the Messier 51 galaxy system – 

Astronomers using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory recently caught the supermassive black hole in galaxy NGC 5195 burping after a meal composed of gas and maybe even stars. This giant black hole is one of the closest to Earth that’s currently erupting violent blasts of X-rays. Studying these violent outbursts presents an opportunity to learn more about the processes creating some of the most energetic events observed in the cosmos. 

“For an analogy, astronomers often refer to black holes as ‘eating’ stars and gas.  Apparently, black holes can also burp after their meal,” said Eric Schlegel of The University of Texas at San Antonio, who led the study. “Our observation is important because this behavior would likely happen very often in the early universe, altering the evolution of galaxies. It is common for big black holes to expel gas outward, but rare to have such a close, resolved view of these events.” 

A smaller companion galaxy, NGC 5195 is currently merging with a larger spiral galaxy NGC 5194 (The Whirlpool). Astronomers believe this ongoing merger was the trigger for the two arcs of X-ray emission they originally detected near its center. The energy released as the supermassive black hole expelled material outward into the cosmos would be sufficient to produce the X-ray arcs detected. Material that was part of the original gas that was funneled toward the supermassive black hole as the two galaxies interacted over millions of years would suffice. 

“We think these arcs represent fossils from two enormous blasts when the black hole expelled material outward into the galaxy,” said co-author Christine Jones of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass. “This activity is likely to have had a big effect on the galactic landscape.” 

Astronomers followed up the original observations of these arcs by Chandra using the 0.9-meter telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory. They detected a slender region of emission of relatively cool hydrogen gas in an optical image suggesting X-ray emitting gas swept up hydrogen gas from the center of the galaxy. Scientists call this phenomenon by which a supermassive black hole changes its host galaxy “feedback”. 

In the case of the X-ray glowing arcs astronomers observed coming from the region of the supermassive black hole in the center of companion galaxy NGC 5195. Scientists believe the outer arc plowed up enough gas and material to start the formation of new stars over a period of three to six million years. This points to the “feedback” phenomenon being a process of creation in the universe, not just massive destruction.  

“We think that feedback keeps galaxies from becoming too large,” said co-author Marie Machacek of CfA. “But at the same time, it can be responsible for how some stars form. This shows that black holes can create, not just destroy.” 

Astrophysicists also want to study the blasts emanating from near the supermassive black hole because of their location in galaxy NGC 5195. In previously detected active supermassive black holes in other galaxies, rapid outflows haven’t been detected in regions this far out. It could be possible we’re viewing an intermediate stage in the feedback process operating between the black hole and interstellar gas. 

Study continues

Scientists will continue to study the powerful blasts coming from the supermassive black hole at the center of galaxy NGC 5195. This will allow them to gain knowledge on how these massive blasts change the environment of their home galaxy. It will also allow them to study how these powerful blasts would alter the evolution of a galaxy.  

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We’ll update you if they detect any after burps from the supermassive black hole. 

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