Key Takeaways:

  • A black hole system, MAXI J1820+070, 10,000 light-years away, was observed by Chandra X-ray Observatory to erupt.
  • The black hole’s strong gravity pulls material from its companion star, forming a glowing gas disk. Some gas falls in, while some escapes as jets.
  • Two jets shot out, each containing a massive amount of material, making it one of the fastest black hole jet explosions ever seen in X-rays.
  • The jets appear to travel faster than light due to their direction and a phenomenon called “superluminal motion.” They are actually less than light speed.
  • Studying binary systems like MAXI J1820+070 helps us understand jet formation and interaction with their environment.

A black hole shooting out gassy material at nearly the speed of light has been caught on video by a space telescope.

As part of the binary system known as MAXI J1820+070, the black hole and companion star were observed to have burst out, as observed by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. The system is 10,000 light-years from Earth, which is relatively close to our planet in the cosmic scheme of things and allows for a detailed investigation.

The strong gravity of the stellar-mass black hole, which is about eight times the mass of the sun, pulls material from the companion star, which has a mass of about half that of the sun, into an accretion disk, creating a glowing sphere of gas that emits bright X-rays. A portion of the gas escapes the black hole in two jets that point in different directions, while the remainder falls back into the black hole.

Astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory have caught a stellar-mass black hole hurling hot material into space at close to the speed of light.
Astronomers using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory have caught a stellar-mass black hole hurling hot material into space at close to the speed of light. (Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Université de Paris/M. Espinasse et al.; Optical/IR: PanSTARRS)

Two jets that emerged from the black hole, each containing approximately 400 million billion pounds (181 million billion kilograms) of material, generated one of the fastest explosions from stellar-mass black holes ever seen in X-rays.

“This amount of mass is comparable to what could be accumulated on the disk around the black hole in the space of a few hours, and is equivalent to about a thousand Halley’s Comets or about 500 million times the mass of the Empire State Building,” NASA said in a statement.

Three times in 2019 (February, May, and June) and four times in November 2018, Chandra recorded video of the black hole’s activity. Due to an optical illusion, the jets appear to be traveling at extremely high speeds from Earth’s perspective.

Upon first observation, the southern jet seems to be traveling at an unfathomable 160% the speed of light, while the northern jet seems to be spewing material at 60% the speed of light. According to NASA, this is because of a phenomenon called “superluminal motion.” NASA described the phenomenon as occurring “when something travels towards us along a direction close to our line of sight, near the speed of light.”

“This means,” the agency continued, “[that] the object travels almost as quickly towards us as the light it generates, giving the illusion that the jet’s motion is more rapid than the speed of light. When it comes to MAXI J1820+070, the southern jet appears to be traveling more quickly than the northern one because it is pointing in our direction while the northern jet is pointing away from us. The actual velocity of the particles in both jets is greater than 80% of the speed of light.”

According to NASA, observations of binary systems like MAXI J1820+070, which have a black hole and a companion star, may reveal more details about the formation of jets and how they interact with their surroundings.

The University of Oxford in England’s Joe Bright led team has also detected the black hole’s activity in radio wavelengths. According to NASA, Bright’s team also reported the superluminal motion based only on radio data. In addition to doubling the amount of time astronomers could track the jets in X-ray observations, Chandra also added more information about the jets, such as the fact that their particles slow down as they travel away from the black hole.

“Most of the energy in the jets is not converted into radiation, but is instead released when particles in the jets interact with surrounding material,” NASA said. “These interactions might be the cause of the jets’ deceleration. Similar to the sonic booms produced by supersonic aircraft, shock waves are produced when the jets collide with surrounding material in interstellar space. This process generates particle energies that are higher than that of the Large Hadron Collider.”

Astrophysical Journal Letters published a paper that was based on the research. With connections to the University of Paris-Saclay, the University of Paris Diderot, and the University of Paris, Mathilde Espinasse led the research.

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