Cambridge, MA -
Scientists at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA), in concert with the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration, have discovered something lurking in the heart of quasar 3C 279: a writhing relativistic jet.
Located five billion light-years from Earth in the constellation Virgo, 3C 279 is known for its powerful relativistic jet producing violent variability across the electromagnetic spectrum. New images from the EHT revealed both the extreme central region of the quasar and an unexpected twisted shape at its base in fine detail.
"We believe that this quasar, like others out there in active galactic nuclei, originated in the area surrounding a super massive black hole at the center of a galaxy," said Maciek Wielgus, astronomer, CfA. "3C 279 is powered by its central supermassive black hole, which is roughly one billion times more massive than the Sun."
Classified as a quasar due to the ultra-luminous source of energy at its center that shines and flickers as gas falls into a giant black hole, 3C 279 is especially active. Most of the super-heated gas swirls around the black hole on its way to the event horizon. However, a small fraction gets disrupted by strong magnetic fields and flung outward in two fine firehose-like jets of plasma.
Newly analyzed data from the study revealed the unexpected twisted shape at the base of the jet, which is normally straight. Jae-Young Kim, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, and the lead author on the paper further explained, "We know that every time you open a new window to the universe you can find something unexpected. Here, where we expected to find the region the jet forms by going to the sharpest image possible, we found a kind of perpendicular structure. This is like finding a very different shape by opening the smallest Matryoshka."
While observing finer details of the jet over a series of consecutive days, scientists noticed that the source was changing right before their eyes. “We are looking at an object located 5 billion light-years away. It means that when the light we observe was emitted, our Solar System was not yet formed,” said Wielgus. "It's amazing that with the exquisite resolution of the EHT we can track the variable daily affairs of this distant quasar."
The EHT works by simultaneously connecting radio telescopes across the world to form a virtual telescope the size of Earth, a technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), and the data collected is combined, calibrated, and analyzed by EHT experts and scientists to produce fine-detail images of some of the most violent activity in the universe. "This technique has allowed us to peer into the heart of 3C 279’s central black hole system with an angular resolution of billionths of a degree," said Lindy Blackburn, radio astronomer, CfA. "We were then able to see the jet structure in the region where it is being formed with incredible precision.”
New computational tools paired with the transformative resolution of the EHT also proved revelatory in other ways. "With the EHT, scientists were able to resolve what was a single radio "core" into two independent complexes that are moving relative to each other at what appears to be faster-than-light speeds. "This is a fascinating optical illusion that is well known," said Blackburn. "Since the jet is oriented very nearly towards us, as material speeds down the jet it can seem as though it is moving faster than light. It confirms that we are seeing explosive outflows from this black hole."
The EHT is always improving and the latest images from quasar 3C 279 are part of a much larger story being written by the collaboration, explains Shep Doeleman, Founding Director, EHT. "The announcement of the M87 image last year allowed us to glimpse one of nature's greatest mysteries: the event horizon of a supermassive black hole. These new quasar results demonstrate that the unique EHT capabilities can address a wide range of science questions, which will only grow as we continue to add new telescopes to the array. Our team is now working on a next-generation EHT array that will greatly sharpen our focus on black holes."
Wielgus, too, is looking forward to future studies of 3C 279 and what these findings mean for black hole studies. "Imaging of the fine-scale structures in active galactic nuclei jets close to supermassive black holes can give us a better understanding of accretion and outflow activities, something we’ve wanted to know for years. Imaging M87 a year ago was an important step in understanding jet formation and paved the way for this new study, which in turn, is opening doors into parts of the universe we can currently only speculate on."
Additional contributing authors from CfA include Mislav Baloković, Lindy Blackburn, Sheperd Doeleman, Peter Galison, Kari Haworth, Michael Johnson, Garrett Keating, James Moran, Ramesh Narayan, Daniel Palumbo, Dominic Pesce, Jonathan Weintroub, and Maciek Wielgus.
The results of the study are published in Astronomy & Astrophysics.
About Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian
Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA) is a collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.
Black Hole Initiative, Harvard University
Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian
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Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie, Bonn
Dr. Jae-Young Kim
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Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian
Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory