From the March 2014 issue

Meet face to face with a black hole’s jet

Hubble Space Telescope observations reveal how the central jet in active galaxy M87 changes with time.
By | Published: March 26, 2014 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
M87 jet
The M87 jet
The giant elliptical galaxy M87 resides near the center of the vast Virgo cluster, a collection of more than 1,000 galaxies located some 50 to 55 million light-years from Earth. The bright X-ray emission coming from M87 shows it to be the cluster’s dominant member. The galaxy also harbors a central black hole with a mass roughly 6 billion times that of the Sun. As the black hole draws in surrounding material, magnetic fields channel some of it into a jet that extends about 5,000 light-years.

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope took approximately 500 images of this jet over a 13-year span from 1995 to 2008. They then combined those pictures to create a movie that shows hot plasma spiraling around the jet’s helix-shaped magnetic field. The video starts with a wide-field view of Virgo and then zooms into the galaxy before penetrating to the core. Despite M87’s great distance, motion within the jet shows up because the material travels at nearly the speed of light.

Animation credit: NASA/ESA/G. Bacon (STScI)