Astronomers spot ancient effects from a supermassive black hole’s jets

Astronomers have gleaned their first insight to what the jets blasting off of supermassive black holes may have done to surrounding gas in the young universe.

Scientists are curious about this interaction around a black hole because they believe the phenomenon may slow star formation in the region. And while astronomers have studied such interactions in nearby areas of the universe, they have struggled to do so at great distances. Those distances allow them to see into the past, since the longer light has to travel to reach Earth, the earlier in the universe it illuminates. But now, a team of astronomers believes they have done accomplished that feat in their study of an object called MG J0414+0534.

“We are perhaps witnessing the very early phase of jet evolution in the galaxy,” Satoki Matsushita, a research fellow at Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan and a co-author on the new research, said in a statement. “It could be as early as several tens of thousands of years after the launch of the jets.”

Related: No escape: Dive into a black hole (infographic)

That freshness reflects the fact that the object is 11 billion light-years away from Earth. The only reason astronomers could spot it at all is that a massive galaxy happened to align between the scientists and their target. The intervening object acted as a gravitational lens, magnifying the mystery on the other side of it.

That mystery was a quasar. Although black holes are known for consuming all in their path, that isn’t strictly true, and in the case of quasars, jets shoot out of the black hole’s top and bottom, filled with particles that are instead accelerated to nearly the speed of light as they flee the black hole

ALMA’s view of the quasar MG J0414+0534. Red marks dust and ionized gas surrounding the quasar; green marks carbon monoxide gas along the quasar’s jets.  (Image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), K. T. Inoue et al.)

Between the gravitational lensing and the power of the array the scientists used to study MG J0414+0534, the quasar appeared 9,000 times larger in their data than it would to the unaided eye, according to the statement.

That detail allowed the scientists to determine that the jets are indeed shaping the gas around them, whipping the clouds of gas to speeds as fast as 373 miles per second (600 kilometers per second).

An image of what the quasar MG J0414+0534 would look like with the same color scheme but without gravitational lensing.  (Image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), K. T. Inoue et al.)

“We found telltale evidence of significant interaction between jets and gaseous clouds even in the very early evolutionary phase of jets,” lead author Kaiki Inoue, a cosmologist at Kindai University, Japan, said in the same statement. “I think that our discovery will pave the way for a better understanding of the evolutionary process of galaxies in the early universe.”

The research is described in a paper published March 27 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

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