Astronomers discover black hole's X-ray jets

The 'accidental' discovery of X-ray jets shooting out of a black hole in the distant Universe is a sign there could be more waiting to be detected.

Chandra’s X-ray data has been combined with an optical image from the Digitized Sky Survey to produce this image of the black hole’s jet.
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/ISAS/A.Simionescu et al, Optical: DSS

Astronomers have stumbled across a black hole’s jet being illuminated by the cosmic microwave background (CMB); the glow left over from the Big Bang.

The light emitted from the black hole, called B3 0727+409, originated about 2.7 billion years after the Big Bang, when the Universe was only about one fifth of its current age.

A team of astronomers discovered the jet while observing a galaxy cluster nearby with the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The length of the black hole jet is about 300,000 lightyears.

Studying powerful jets like this enables astronomers to examine how black holes grew during the initial stages in the formation of the Universe.

Many jets from supermassive black holes have been detected in the nearby Universe, but it is unclear how or why the jets give off X-rays. In this case, it seems that electrons in the jet are being boosted to X-ray wavelengths by the CMB.

One theory is that, as electrons in the jet shoot out from the black hole at nearly the speed of light, they hit microwave photons in the CMB, which boosts the energy of the photons into the X-ray band, which Chandra can then detect.

"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," says Aurora Simionescu at JAXA's Institute of Space and Astronautical Studies (ISAS) who led the study.

The fact that astronomers stumbled upon the jet shows that there could be many more X-ray jets waiting to be discovered. Usually, these jets are detected in radio wavelengths and then followed up with X-ray observations. But if such X-ray jets can exist without being detected by radio telescopes, it opens up the possibility that there are more to be detected.

"Supermassive black hole activity, including the launching of jets, may be different in the early Universe than what we see later on," says 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."


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