Spectacular jets in Hercules A

Date:13 February 2014 Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Spectacular jets powered by the gravitational energy of a supermassive black hole in the core of the elliptical galaxy Hercules A illustrate the combined imaging power of two of astronomy’s cutting-edge tools, the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3 and the recently upgraded Karl G Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope in New Mexico.

Some two billion light-years away, the yellowish elliptical galaxy in the centre of the image appears quite ordinary as seen by Hubble in visible wavelengths of light. In reality, it’s roughly 1 000 times more massive than the bulge of our Milky Way and harbours a 2,5 billion solar-mass central black hole that is 1 000 times more massive than the black hole in the Milky Way. It’s also the brightest radio-emitting object in the constellation Hercules, emitting nearly a billion times more power in radio wavelengths than our Sun.

The VLA radio data reveal enormous, optically invisible jets that, at one-and-a-half million light-years wide, dwarf the visible galaxy from which they emerge. The jets are very-high-energy plasma beams, subatomic particles and magnetic fields shot at nearly the speed of light from the vicinity of the black hole. The outer portions of both jets show unusual ring-like structures suggesting a history of multiple outbursts from the supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy.

Image credit: Nasa/ESA, S Baum and C O’Dea (RIT), R Perley and W Cotton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)