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Black hole jets are like ‘million-light-year-long Jedi lightsabers’

An intriguing new discovery challenges conventional understanding. A team of astrophysicists at Princeton University has brought a new perspective to the enigmatic nature of black holes.

Their recent study reveals that black holes, often thought to be cosmic voids relentlessly consuming everything in their vicinity, can actually lose energy. This concept aligns with Einstein’s theory of relativity but contradicts popular belief.

Energy dynamics of black holes

Astrophysicist Eliot Quataert is the Charles A. Young Professor of Astronomy at Princeton. He explains the phenomenon with an analogy: “Like a spinning top that gradually slows down, a rotating black hole loses energy to its surroundings.”

This concept, though accepted since the 1970s, remained shrouded in mystery, particularly concerning the role of magnetic fields in extracting energy from spinning black holes.

The Princeton team includes Andrew Chael, George Wong, Alexandru Lupsasca, and Eliot Quataert. They have now conclusively determined that energy near the event horizon of the black hole in galaxy Messier 87 (M87*) is being expelled outward. This finding is a significant stride in validating the prediction that black holes lose rotational energy. The energy loss, in turn, fuels the formation of colossal energy jets.

The secrets of black hole M87*

These jets, as former Princeton postdoc Alexandru Lupsasca vividly describes, are akin to “million-light-year-long Jedi lightsabers.” Their enormous size dwarfs even the size of our Milky Way galaxy. The key insight leading to this discovery was the recognition that the direction of spiraling magnetic field lines indicates the direction of energy flow.

George Wong is an associate research scholar with the Princeton Gravity Initiative. He offers a striking comparison to illustrate the magnitude of energy released from M87* (the black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy).

Wong says, “Imagine exploding the Earth with the force of a thousand TNT blasts every second for millions of years.”

Advances in researching black holes

This research not only provides a sharper prediction for energy transfer in astrophysical black holes, but also sets the stage for further exploration with the proposed “next generation” Event Horizon Telescope. Wong highlights the potential impact of their findings in shaping the specifications for this future instrument.

While the study has made significant headway, the team acknowledges that their model doesn’t conclusively prove the black hole’s spin as the sole power source of the extragalactic jet. Lupsasca notes, “We believe it’s extremely likely the black hole powers the jet, but we can’t prove it. Yet.”

The work from the Princeton team enhances our understanding of black holes, and also opens new avenues for astronomical research and technology. It’s a testament to the dynamic nature of scientific inquiry, where each discovery builds upon the last, pushing the boundaries of our understanding of the universe.

More about black holes

Black holes, long the subject of both scientific study and popular fascination, represent some of the most mysterious and extreme objects in the universe. Their unique properties challenge our understanding of physics and offer a window into the cosmos’s most profound secrets.

What are black holes?

A black hole is a region in space where the gravitational pull is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape it. The boundary surrounding a black hole is known as the event horizon. Once an object crosses this boundary, it inexorably falls into the black hole.

Black hole formation

Black holes form from the remnants of massive stars. When such a star exhausts its nuclear fuel, it undergoes a catastrophic collapse under its own gravity. For stars with a mass greater than about 20 times that of the Sun, this collapse results in a black hole.

Types of black holes

Stellar Black Holes: These form from the gravitational collapse of massive stars and typically have masses ranging from about five to several tens of solar masses.

Supermassive Black Holes: Lying at the centers of most galaxies, including our Milky Way, supermassive black holes have masses equivalent to millions or even billions of suns. Their origin remains one of the great mysteries in astrophysics.

Intermediate Black Holes: The existence of black holes with masses between stellar and supermassive is hypothesized, but such intermediate black holes have been difficult to detect.

Black hole properties

Gravitational Pull: The immense gravitational force of a black hole results from its mass being compressed into an incredibly small space.

Singularity: At the center of a black hole lies the singularity, a point where gravitational forces compress matter to infinite density and where the laws of physics as we know them cease to operate.

Event Horizon: The event horizon of a black hole is the point of no return. Beyond this, the gravitational pull is so strong that escape is impossible, even for light.

Black hole misconceptions

Not Cosmic Vacuums: Contrary to popular belief, black holes do not ‘suck’ matter like a vacuum cleaner. Objects need to come close enough to be drawn in by their gravity.

Hawking Radiation: Proposed by Stephen Hawking, this theory suggests that black holes can emit radiation due to quantum effects near the event horizon. This radiation allows black holes to lose energy and, over extremely long timescales, evaporate entirely.

Observing black holes

Detecting black holes poses significant challenges since they do not emit light. However, scientists can infer their presence by observing the behavior of nearby stars and gas. For instance, if a star orbits an invisible object or gas accelerates and emits high-energy radiation, a black hole might be the cause.

Black holes and relativity

Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicts the existence of black holes and accurately describes their properties. According to relativity, black holes warp spacetime, bending the path of anything that passes nearby, including light.

In summary, black holes continue to captivate both scientists and the public. They are not just theoretical constructs but observable realities that challenge our understanding of the universe.

As research advances, particularly with initiatives mentioned above like the Event Horizon Telescope, our comprehension of these cosmic giants is set to deepen, potentially unlocking more secrets of the universe.

The full study was published in The Astrophysical Journal.

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