The jet stream appears to have a surprising shape …

Researchers presented a year ago the first photo of a black hole ever. A huge milestone. Because that was the proof that these phenomena really exist. Now, a year later, a team of astronomers has once again joined forces to hunt the distant quasar 3C 279 this time.

Jet stream
For their research, the astronomers, including several Dutch astronomers, used the same data from the worldwide observations that also yielded the first image of the black hole in galaxy M87. Now it was the jet stream of 3C 279. Like M87, it is a galaxy in the constellation Virgo. In that galaxy there is a supermassive black hole with about a billion times the mass of the sun that erupts so-called plasma jets. In order to capture these as sharply as possible on the image, several telescopes worldwide were linked together. These included ALMA, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, the Large Millimeter Telescope, the Submillimeter Array and the South Pole Telescope.

More about jet streams
Jets or jet streams are high-energy plasma streams that rush out of black holes or neutron stars at high speed. Jets are very interesting because they spew large amounts of matter into space. This can have a major impact on the immediate environment. Astronomers are therefore keen to understand how jets are produced and how much matter they blow into space.

The observed black hole shreds the gas and stars that venture nearby. Part of the gas then spurts out in two long beams of plasma at speeds close to the speed of light. This says something about the enormous forces in the center. That supermassive black holes emit plasma jets is nothing new in itself. Only until now it was thought that a jet was a straight jet stream. But that turns out to be different.

Thanks to the coupled telescopes, researchers were able to image the jet stream sharper than ever. And thanks to these new measurements, it seems that the jet stream has an unexpected twisted shape and is more like a corkscrew. The jet also appears to be more agile than expected. Research leader Jae-Young Kim is enthusiastic and surprised at the same time. “It’s a bit like opening a series of matryoshka dolls and the last, smallest doll suddenly being very different from the rest,” he says.

Image of the jet streams from 3C 279. Image: J.Y. Kim (MPIfR), Boston University Blazar program, and the EHT Collaboration

In the coming period, the researchers will continue to analyze the data from the previous measurement campaigns. “Last year we were able to present the first photo of the black hole shadow, and now we are seeing unexpected changes in jet stream shape in 3C 279,” says researcher J. Anton Zensus. “And we are not done yet. We are working on the analysis of data from the center of our galaxy where the supermassive black hole Sgr A * is located. We are also looking at other active galaxies, such as Centaurus A, OJ 287 and NGC 1052. As we said last year, this is just the beginning. ”

Currently, analysis of data already collected will remain from previous observations. That’s because Unfortunately, planned new observations with the Event Horizon Telescope and the connected radio telescopes cannot take place due to the corona virus. The purpose of these new observations was to expand and enhance the set of results that also produced the very first black hole photograph. But we will have to wait a little longer for that. Fortunately there is no delay. Because the sightings are now planned for the spring of 2021.