Key takeaways

  • Jets of plasma from M87 appear to move faster than light, challenging fundamental physics rules.
  • First noticed in 1918, these jets originate from supermassive black holes at galactic centers.
  • Viewing angle tricks our perception—plasma jets are actually moving at high fractions of light speed.
  • Studying M87 helps understand how black hole jets influence galaxy evolution.
  • Research spans decades, revealing new details about these cosmic phenomena.

An energy beam emerges from galaxy M87 like a toothpick in a martini olive, performing the greatest conjuring trick: it seems to move faster than light.

According to Hubble Space Telescope measurements, it is nearly five times faster. This accomplishment was originally detected in 1995 in galaxy M87 and has subsequently been replicated in several other galaxies.

It can make you doubt your entire reality. Nothing can exceed the cosmic speed limit, correct? You can’t just ignore the rules of physics.

If all you want to do is enjoy the illusion from your place in the crowd, stop reading. Otherwise, I invite you backstage to see how the technique works and how it helps scientists grasp the fate of whole galaxies.

Blobs that travel faster than the speed of light?

We’ve known about the jet of plasma erupting from M87’s center since 1918, when astronomer Heber Curtis noticed a beam of light related to the galaxy. To be seen from such a great distance, it had to be enormous – around 6000 light years long.

As contemporary astronomers now understand, almost all galaxies have a core black hole that periodically sucks in stars and gas clouds. When gas begins to swirl down the drain, it warms up, and magnetic fields concentrate part of it into jets of hot plasma. These jets travel at speeds close to, but not greater than, the speed of light.

Cosmic uncertainty: Is the speed of light really constant?

If you point a telescope toward M87, you will notice that this lance of plasma is pointing in the wrong direction. Instead of directly into our line of sight, it’s slanted slightly to the right.

To explain the illusion, imagine a single incandescent ball of plasma beginning at the bottom of this route and generating a beam of light, both of which go towards Earth.

Now, wait ten years. During that period, the blob has approached at a significant fraction of the speed of light. That provides the photons released from the later point a few light years’ head start on their journey to us.

When viewed from Earth, the first and second photographs appear to show the blob simply moving to the right across the sky.

However, because the second location is closer to us, its light has traveled less distance than it looks. That means it seems to have reached there faster than it did, as if the blob spent those ten years traveling at breakneck speed.

One of several

Eileen Meyer of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, thinks that the M87 jet is more than simply a curiosity.

Outflows of energy from big black holes can stop or initiate the birth of stars across the cosmos. However, it is unknown how these discharges function and how much energy they carry.

It is difficult for distant objects, such as galaxies, to change much in a short period of time, but jets like the one in M87 accomplish so by appearing to move faster than light.

This allows astronomers to accurately determine how fast the plasma is moving and, as a result, how strong the process is. M87 is unusual in that, in compared to other galaxies, it is rather near and easy to study.

Astronomers were able to discover this plasma ripple in 1999 using Hubble photos of the jet taken over a four-year time frame. Meyer expanded that to 13 years of images in 2013, and as if things weren’t tricky enough, it looked that the plasma was also moving in corkscrew-like spirals.

Meyer’s latest findings, which are now being processed for publication, extend that baseline to more than two decades and may reveal fresh surprises.

“Over 20 years, you know, things go bump in the night,” she recounts.

Despite her familiarity with the faster-than-light phenomenon, she occasionally pauses to notice it. The bulk of astronomical objects we see moving across the sky, such as planets and comets, are within our range. However, M87 is millions of light-years away.

“We can see, over a human lifetime, things moving,” according to her. “Which is crazy.”

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