January 10, 2008—A new ultradeep image of the nearby galaxy Centaurus A offers the best view yet of the effects of an active supermassive black hole, astronomers announced yesterday.
The image, taken by the space-based Chandra X-Ray Observatory, reveals a powerful jet of high-energy particles that extends for 13,000 light-years. A weaker counterjet points in the opposite direction.
Astronomers think the jet is created by energy escaping as matter falls into a supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy, a system known as an active galactic nucleus.
Such jets likely deliver energy to the rest of the galaxy, fueling star formation.
Knot-like features in the jet suggest that different sections are moving at different speeds, creating regions of turbulence. These knots could provide clues to understanding how particles in the jet are accelerated to near light-speed.
"Centaurus A is the nearest galaxy to us with an active galactic nucleus," astronomer Gregory Sivakoff of Ohio State University told reporters yesterday at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas.
At a mere 12 million light-years from Earth, the galaxy offers scientists a unique opportunity to study how the jets influence the way galaxies grow, he said.
"[It] acts as a Rosetta stone that can narrow our understanding of the evolution of galaxies," Sivakoff said.
The deep image also revealed what appears to be hundreds of pinpoint sources of light scattered across the galaxy.
"We believe that each of these may be a black hole tens of times as massive as the sun," Sivakoff said.
These so-called stellar mass black holes are likely members of binary systems, with each black hole orbiting a companion star, he explained.
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