Black Hole Jets Packed With Power From Heavy Atoms Discovered

By Rhonda J. Miller on November 16, 2013 6:37 PM EST

Black Hole System WIth Jets
A model of the black hole system with the jets that have been found to contain atomic matter. (Photo: J.Miller-Jones, ICRAR / Rhonda J. Miller)

An international team of astronomers has discovered evidence that the high-speed jets from black holes are packed with power from heavy atoms, according a study published in the journal Nature.

Astronomers have known that black holes contain electrons, which are low-mass particles. In the new findings, the research team using the Compact Array radio telescope of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton space telescope found the first evidence of heavy atoms of iron and nickel in the jets from a typical black hole known as 4U1630-47, according to Astronomy magazine.

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"Jets from supermassive black holes help determine a galaxy's fate — how it evolves," said CSIRO researcher Tasso Tzioumis, in an interview with Astronomy. "So we want to understand better the impact jets have on their environment."

"Heavy atoms have been seen in jets from one other system, SS433, but that's a very unusual system, an oddball, whereas this system is quite typical, much more likely to represent black holes in general," Tzioumis said.

Jets are narrow beams of matter emitted at high speeds from near a central object, like a black hole, according to the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Australia.

"Although they've been observed for decades, we're still not sure what they are made of, or what powers them," said lead author Maria Diaz Trigo of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany.

The team studied the radio waves and X-rays emitted by a small black hole a few times more massive than the sun. Observations completed weeks apart showed changes that led to the discovery.

A few weeks after radio observations did not show any jets, radio emissions appeared corresponding to the sudden appearance of jets around the black hole, including lines in the X-ray spectrum.

"Intriguingly, we found the lines were not where they should be, but rather were shifted significantly," said researcher James Miller-Jones of Curtin University and the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, who led the radio observations.

"It led us to conclude the particles were being accelerated to fast speeds in the jets, one directed towards Earth, and the other one in the opposite direction," said research team member Simone Migliari, from the University of Barcelona.

The discovery suggests that the jets are powered by the black hole's accretion disk, which is a belt of hot gas that swirls around it, according to Astronomy magazine. The jets are not powered by the spin of the black hole itself, which would be more likely to produce jets containing only light particles.

The jets are traveling at two-thirds the speed of light. If the fast moving jets that contain heavy particles smash into matter in space, they could generate gamma rays and neutrinos, which might be detectable with current or future telescopes.

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