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Black holes caught redirecting their jets like a 'Death Star' weapon

Astronomers have caught supermassive black holes in the act of changing the direction of their jets – a cosmic twist that could shake up our understanding of star formation and galaxy evolution.

Imagine these behemoths, millions or even billions of times more massive than our Sun, firing off powerful jets of energy like cosmic cannons. What happens when these cannons start swiveling?

Jets from black holes in two galaxy groups

In a captivating display, supermassive black holes are known to emit powerful jets of energy, often aligned with their rotation axis.

Picture a spinning top, spewing energy from its poles. However, recent observations have revealed a surprising twist in this celestial pattern.

A team of astronomers, using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array, observed sixteen supermassive black holes spewing jets into space.

Two Chandra images below reveal hot gas in the middle of the galaxy cluster Abell 478 (left) and the galaxy group NGC 5044 (right).

Supermassive black hole jets changing directions in Abell 478 [Left] and NGC 5044 [Right]. Credit: NASA/CXC

One of the sixteen black holes firing beams outwards resides in the center of each image. Each black hole lies in the center of a galaxy embedded in the hot gas.

The beams carved out these cavities millions of years ago, indicating the past directions of the beams. An “X” marks the location on the below image of each supermassive black hole.

Annotated image of supermassive black hole jets changing directions in Abell 478 [Left] and NGC 5044 [Right]. Credit: NASA/CXC

They noticed that some of these jets had significantly changed direction over time. This is akin to a spinning top suddenly veering off course.

The researchers found that about a third of the 16 galaxies have beams pointing in completely different directions than before.

In some cases, the beams have changed directions by nearly 90 degrees. These changes occurred over timescales ranging from one million years to a few tens of millions of years.

Black holes redirecting their jets

What could cause these cosmic cannons to change course? The direction of a black hole’s jet is linked to its rotation axis.

If material falling into the black hole approaches at an angle not parallel to the surrounding disk of matter, it can alter the black hole’s rotation. This change in rotation can shift the direction of the jet.

Black holes generate beams when material falls onto them via a spinning disk of matter. Some of this material gets redirected outward.

The direction of these beams aligns with the rotation axis of the black hole, meaning the beams point along a line connecting the poles.

If the inflow of material is misaligned with the disk, it can tilt the rotation axis, causing the jet direction to change. These findings reveal the dynamic nature of black holes and their significant influence on the galaxies they inhabit.

Consequences of change in black hole direction

This unexpected shift in directions from the jets of black holes has far-reaching implications, especially for star formation within galaxies.

Black hole jets inject energy into the surrounding gas, preventing it from cooling and forming stars. If these jets change direction, they could suppress star formation across wider areas of the galaxy.

Think of it as a cosmic gardener with a hose, watering different parts of the galactic garden. If the hose suddenly changes direction, some areas might get overwatered while others dry out, affecting the growth of plants (or in this case, stars).

Glimpse into the dynamic universe

The discovery of these redirected jets from black holes adds another layer of complexity to our understanding of the universe.

It reveals that even the most massive and seemingly stable objects in the cosmos are not immune to change. This is a reminder that the universe is a dynamic and ever-evolving place, full of surprises waiting to be uncovered.

Scientists believe that jets from black holes and the cavities they carve out play a crucial role in star formation within galaxies. These beams pump energy into the hot gas in and around the galaxy.

This prevents the gas from cooling enough to form large numbers of new stars. When the beams change direction significantly, they can suppress star formation across much larger areas of the galaxy.

As we continue to explore the cosmos with increasingly sophisticated tools, we are bound to discover more fascinating phenomena that challenge our current understanding of the universe.

The pattern of the supermassive black holes is just one example of the many mysteries that await us in the vast expanse of space.


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