Something is Lurking in the Heart of Quasar 3C 279

Event Horizon Telescope Images of a Black-Hole Powered Jet

One year ago, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration published the first image of a black hole in the nearby radio galaxy M 87. Now the collaboration has extracted new information from the EHT data on the distant quasar 3C 279: they observed the finest detail ever seen in a jet produced by a supermassive black hole. New analyses, led by Jae-Young Kim from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, enabled the collaboration to trace the jet back to its launch point, close to where violently variable radiation from across the electromagnetic spectrum arises.

The results are published in the coming issue of “Astronomy & Astrophysics”, April 2020.

The EHT collaboration continues extracting information from the groundbreaking data collected in its global campaign in April 2017. One target of the observations was a galaxy 5 billion light-years away in the constellation Virgo that scientists classify as a quasar because an ultra-luminous source of energy at its center shines and flickers as gas falls into a giant black hole. The target, 3C 279, contains a black hole about one billion times more massive than our Sun. Twin fire-hose-like jets of plasma erupt from the black hole and disk system at velocities close to the speed of light: a consequence of the enormous forces unleashed as matter descends into the black hole’s immense gravity.

To capture the new image, the EHT uses a technique called very long baseline interferometry (VLBI), which synchronizes and links radio dishes around the world. By combining this network to form one huge virtual Earth-size telescope, the EHT is able to resolve objects as small as 20 micro-arcseconds on the sky — the equivalent of someone on Earth identifying an orange on the Moon. Data recorded at all the EHT sites around the world is transported to special supercomputers at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn and at MIT’s Haystack Observatory in Westford, Massachusetts, where they are combined. The combined data set is then carefully calibrated and analyzed by a team of experts, which then enables EHT scientists to produce images with the finest detail possible from the surface of the Earth.

The newly analyzed data show that the normally straight jet has an unexpected twisted shape at its base. Jae-Young Kim, lead author of the paper, is enthusiastic and at the same time puzzled: “We knew that every time you open a new window to the universe you can find something new. Here, where we expected to find the region where the jet forms by going to the sharpest image possible, we find a kind of perpendicular structure. This is like finding a very different shape by opening the smallest matryoshka doll.”

“The results are very surprising,” said Kazunori Akiyama, a Jansky Fellow of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) at MIT Haystack who developed imaging techniques for the EHT to create the first images of the black hole in M87, and which were also used to create the images of quasar 3C 279. “When we observed the quasar for four days within one week, we assumed that we would not see these dynamical changes because the source is so far away (100 times further from Earth than M87). But the EHT observations were so sharp that for the first time we could see tiny changes in motions of the jets within this time frame.”

3C 279 has a very active nucleus that can be observed across all wavelengths. The jet in the nucleus has already been monitored for over two decades with the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA)

. Astronomers Alan Marscher and Svetlana Jorstad of Boston University lead a project called VLBA-BU-BLAZAR, to relate outbursts of gamma-rays and X-rays to changes in the jet seen in VLBA images at a wavelength of 7 millimeters.

The VLBA images reveal that 3C 279 shoots “blobs” of high-energy particles and magnetic fields down a jet at velocities up to 99.96% of the speed of light. “Surprisingly, the speeds vary over time, as does the direction that the blobs move when they first appear,” said Marscher. “This implies that the jets are propelled in a complex way from a jet launching region about 0.4 light-years across, which can be explored by shorter wavelength observations with the Event Horizon Telescope. The EHT observations have the potential to see how the blobs form and accelerate as they move farther from the black hole into the jet seen in the VLBA images.”

Avery Broderick, an astrophysicist working at the Perimeter Institute and University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, said: “For 3C 279, the combination of the transformative resolution of the EHT and new computational tools for interpreting its data have proved revelatory. What was a single radio ‘core’ is now resolved into two independent complexes. And they move – even on scales as small as light-months, the jet in 3C 279 is speeding toward us at more than 99.5% of light speed!”

Because of this rapid motion, the jet in 3C 279 appears to move at about 20 times the speed of light. “This extraordinary optical illusion arises because the material is racing toward us, chasing down the very light it is emitting and making it appear to be moving faster than it is,” clarifies Dom Pesce, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA). The unexpected geometry suggests the presence of traveling shocks or instabilities in a bent, rotating jet, which might also explain emission at high energies such as gamma-rays.

“This result is a dream come true for anyone studying how jets are launched,” says Violette Impellizzeri, lead astronomer for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA)

VLBI observations. “I am particularly thrilled to have been supporting these observations. I did my PhD with this group and we were already working hard on resolving the jet foot point already 15 years ago. With the help of ALMA and all others telescopes in the array, the EHT is really getting there!”

The EHT array is always improving, explains Shep Doeleman, EHT Founding Director. “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 the focus on black holes and allow us to make the first black hole movies.”

The telescopes contributing to this result were ALMA, Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX), the IRAM 30-meter telescope, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, the Large Millimeter Telescope, the Submillimeter Array, the Submillimeter Telescope, and the South Pole Telescope.

Reference

J.Y. Kim, T.P. Krichbaum, A.E. Broderick, et al.: Event Horizon Telescope imaging of the archetypal blazar 3C 279 at an extreme 20 microarcsecond resolution, in: Astronomy & Astrophysics, April 2020. https://doi.org/10.1051/0004-6361/202037493

Media contact

Iris Nijman
NRAO News and Public Information Manager
[email protected]
+1 (434) 249 3423

Background Information

The international collaboration announced the first-ever image of a black hole at the heart of the radio galaxy Messier 87 on April 10, 2019 by creating a virtual Earth-sized telescope. Supported by considerable international investment, the EHT links existing telescopes using novel systems — creating a new instrument with the highest angular resolving power that has yet been achieved.

The individual telescopes involved in the EHT collaboration are: the Atacama Large Millimetre Telescope (ALMA), the Atacama Pathfinder EXplorer (APEX), the Greenland Telescope (since 2018), the IRAM 30-meter Telescope, the IRAM NOEMA Observatory (expected 2021), the Kitt Peak Telescope (expected 2021), the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT), the Submillimeter Array (SMA), the Submillimeter Telescope (SMT), and the South Pole Telescope (SPT).

The VLBA-BU-BLAZAR project has been supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA’s Fermi guest investigator program.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).

ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

In Other News…

Industrial Cybersecurity: A Culture Change

The following is an article from UPDATE, the official publication of Utah Petroleum Association, Issue 4 2020.  Reliable operational technology (OT) or industrial control systems (ICS) underpin every facet of American lives. Without them, our defenses, our economy,...

How would Trump or Biden deal with grid hacking threats?

POLITICS How would Trump or Biden deal with grid hacking threats? Christian Vasquez, E&E News reporter Published: Tuesday, November 3, 2020 President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden have a few competing plans for the nation's cybersecurity —...

Big Astronomy Planetarium Show Premieres September 26

Big Astronomy planetarium show premieres September 26 Turn your phone into a planetarium with innovative and immersive 360° streaming San Francisco – The Big Astronomy worldwide premiere is coming soon to a smart phone or connected device near you! On September 26 at...

ALMA Discovers Misaligned Rings in Planet-Forming Disk Around Triple Stars

Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), two teams of astronomers have for the first time discovered a planet-forming disk with misaligned rings around a triple star system, called GW Orionis. The astronomers give two possible scenarios for the...

Why North Carolina Outsourced Election Cybersecurity to a ‘CISO-as-a-Service’

The following is press coverage on Woodstar Labs' involvement with North Carolina's election security, courtesy of statescoop.com. Faced with mounting cybersecurity needs headed toward the presidential election, but lacking the financial resources to build out a more...

A Cyber-Risk We’re Not Prepared For: What if the Power Grid Collapsed and America Went Dark?

The following is press coverage on the NCGR's new report, courtesy of washingtonpost.com. EVERY CATASTROPHE comes as a shock, but many shouldn’t come as a surprise. Just as we knew a pandemic was a possibility yet failed to plan for it, power-grid collapse is a threat...

Grid Security And Cyber Defense Cannot Fall On Deaf Ears, Experts Warn

The following is press coverage on the NCGR's new report, courtesy of Forbes.com. If the electrical grid is knocked out for long periods, the damage to the American economy would be insurmountable. And the country’s enemies know that. That is why its brain trust is...

Coverage on National Commision on Grid Resilience’s (NCGR) Latest Report

The following is press coverage on the NCGR's new report, courtesy of UtilityDive.com.   Dive Brief: A new report from the National Commission on Grid Resilience (NCGR) calls for declassifying and giving utilities greater access to information about threats...

Woodstar Labs Welcomes New Wave of Cyber Analysts

Woodstar Labs, a subsidiary of AUI focused on cutting-edge-cybersecurity solutions, microelectronics, eLearning, and STEM education welcomes a new cohort of Cyber Analysts. Woodstar labs is excited to work with this talented group of young professionals as we continue...

AUI Statement on Racial Equity

As the nation continues to mourn and respond to the unjust death of George Floyd, there is no doubt that violent race-related incidents and the subsequent protests and clashes are the most urgent need for us as a society to address. Further, to address them, we must...

You are now leaving AUI

You will be redirected to the related partnering organization's website.

You will be redirected to
in 4 seconds...

Click the link above to continue or CANCEL