Scientists observe bright jets of light shooting from black hole like never before

NASA's Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer allowed scientists to probe a distant blazar, shedding new light on the cosmic giants.
Chris Young
An illustration of IXPE observing Markarian 501.
An illustration of IXPE observing Markarian 501.

Pablo Garcia (NASA/MSFC) 

Scientists made observations of bright, shining jets of particles shooting out of a supermassive black hole and they published their findings in a paper in Nature, today, Nov. 23.

The observations shed new light on the high-energy mechanisms of black holes and will help to improve existing computer models of the cosmic giants at the center of most of the galaxies in the observable universe. They also shed new light on the energy mechanisms of blazars, some of the most mysterious objects in the cosmos.

Investigating a blazar with state-of-the-art instruments

The scientists specifically observed the X-ray polarization of a very bright blazar known as Markarian 501 (Mrk 501). To do so, they required a very precise telescope on NASA's Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE), which was launched into space in December 2021.

The IXPE mission is run as part of a collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and it also recently helped scientists investigate the hot plasma surrounding a black hole.

Blazars are a type of galaxy whose central black hole shoots incredibly powerful jets of ionized matter, most of it in the form of high-energy particles, into space. Scientists do not yet fully understand how these particles are accelerated to such high speeds, but observations from state-of-the-art observatories such as IXPE might help to provide answers.

For the latest observations, Ioannis Liodakis from the Finnish Center for Astronomy and colleagues used the IXPE observatory to measure the X-ray polarization of Mrk 501. They specifically investigated two X-ray polarimetry observations of Mrk 501 made by IXPE in March 2022. After comparing the data from these observations with radio and optical polarimetric data, the scientists posited that the high-speed particle acceleration in the jets from the blazar was triggered by a shock wave whose impact was felt along the jet as it traveled out into the cosmos.

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Probing the mechanisms of supermassive black holes

In a press statement, the researchers explain that "these results demonstrate how using different measurements of polarization can probe the condition in supermassive black-hole systems."

In a separate statement, Astrophysicist Lea Marcotulli said the results could finally help the scientific community pinpoint the origin of the incredibly high-powered jets that shoot out of blazars. "X-ray polarimetry will now enable us to study several of these jets to understand if these shocks are common to all sources," she said.

In 2020, astronomers detected the most distant blazar ever observed, located some 13 billion light-years away, meaning its light is reaching us from the early stages of the universe — at a time when the universe was relatively young at 1 billion years old.

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