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Maunakea observatories aid in detailing black hole

  • ESO/WFI (Optical Color composite image of Centaurus A.

Observatories on Maunakea have helped take the most detailed image of one of the brightest objects in the night sky.

The Event Horizon Telescope, an international collaboration of observatories around the world — including the Submillimeter Array and James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Maunakea — captured an image of particle jets emanating from the black hole at the center of a neighboring galaxy.

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At the center of the galaxy, Centaurus A, is a black hole with the mass of 55 million suns that constantly emits a jet of matter and radiation that extends more than a million light-years away. The Event Horizon Telescope has been able to take the most detailed look yet at the source of those jets, which will hopefully shed light on how they are formed.

“It shows us the birth of these jets, and it confirms that the same processes are at work in Centaurus A that were at work on other black holes,” said Geoff Bower, chief scientist for the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics and project scientist with the Event Horizon Telescope.

The Event Horizon Telescope was also responsible for generating the well-known image of black hole Messier 87, also known as Powehi, the first and so far only image of a black hole to date.

Similar to the image of Powehi, Bower said the red “V” shape in the new image indicates the intensity of radio waves emanating from the black hole: the red lines are the outline of the jets, and appear to be where the most intense radio waves are centered.

Submillimeter Array director Simon Radford said the Event Horizon Telescope was able to exploit the data generated from the Powehi observations to generate the Centaurus A image.

The scale of the image is significant on its own: the black hole itself is very small, as far as celestial objects are concerned, while the jets of the black hole cover an area of space more than a billion times larger than the black hole.

“We’re trying to connect this very large structure with a very small structure,” Radford said. “We’re trying to answer how does a jet like this get generated.”

Curiously, Bower said, while the Centaurus A black hole and Powehi both generate similar jets, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way does not. Bower said astronomers have some hypotheses as to why — a difference in magnetic fields being a more prevalent theory — but nothing has been confirmed.

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“But these jets are relativistic, they’re traveling at close to the speed of light,” Bower said. “They can affect their own galaxy, and they can effect nearby galaxies as well.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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