Key takeaways

  • NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory captured video of a black hole emitting gas jets at nearly the speed of light.
  • The black hole, part of the MAXI J1820+070 binary system, is only 10,000 light-years away from Earth.
  • The explosion released 400 million billion pounds of material, equivalent to about 500 million times the mass of the Empire State Building.
  • Jets appeared to exceed the speed of light due to an optical illusion called superluminal motion.
  • Observations can help scientists understand how jets form and interact with their surroundings, shedding light on the dynamics of black hole systems.
Animation of black hole MAXI J1820+070. Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Université de Paris/M. Espinasse et al.; Optical/IR:PanSTARRS

A satellite telescope captured video of a black hole emitting gaseous stuff at almost the speed of light.

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory detected an outburst from the black hole and its companion star, which are part of a binary system known as MAXI J1820+070. The system is 10,000 light-years away from Earth, which is rather near to our planet in the grand scheme of things, allowing for a thorough analysis.

As the companion star, which is about half the mass of the sun, whirls around the black hole, the stellar-mass black hole’s strong gravity nabs material from the star into an accretion disk, resulting in a blazing sphere of gas that produces dazzling X-rays. Some of the gas falls back into the black hole, but some is blasted away by a pair of jets pointing in opposing directions.

This outburst was one of the highest-speed explosions from stellar-mass black holes ever recorded in X-rays, with over 400 million billion pounds (181 million billion kg) of material hurled out of the black hole in two jets that rose up.

“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,” the agency stated in a release.

Chandra obtained footage of the black hole’s activity in four sets of observations in November 2018 and three in 2019 (February, May, and June). From Earth’s viewpoint, the jets appear to be flying at extraordinary speeds due to an optical illusion.

At first inspection, the northern jet appears to be spewing material at 60% the speed of light, whilst the southern jet appears to be flowing at a staggering 160% the speed of light. NASA said that this is due to a phenomena known as “superluminal motion.” NASA described the occurrence as “when something travels towards us near the speed of light, along a direction close to our line of sight.”

“This means,” the agency went on, “that the item travels almost as swiftly towards us as the light it emits, creating the appearance that the jet’s velocity is faster than the speed of light. In the instance of MAXI J1820+070, the southern jet is pointed towards us while the northern jet is facing away, hence the southern jet appears to be going faster than the northern jet. The real velocity of the particles in both jets exceeds 80% of the speed of light.

Observations of binary systems including a black hole and a companion star, such as MAXI J1820+070, might reveal more about how jets originate and interact with their environment, NASA said.

This artist’s illustration shows a black hole pulling material away from a closely orbiting companion star. (Image credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)

A team lead by Joe Bright from the University of Oxford in England monitored the black hole’s activity at radio wavelengths. Bright’s team also reported superluminal velocity based only on radio data, NASA claimed. Chandra’s contribution to prior studies included tripling the amount of time astronomers could watch the jets and giving more data about the jets in X-ray observations, such as the discovery that particles in the jets slow 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,” according to NASA. “These interactions may be the source of the jets’ slowing. When the jets hit with the surrounding material in interstellar space, shock waves, similar to the sonic booms produced by supersonic airplanes, ensue. This method generates particle energies greater than that of the Large Hadron Collider.”

A paper based on the research was published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. The research was led by Mathilde Espinasse, who has affiliations at the University of Paris-Saclay, the University of Paris Diderot and the University of Paris.

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