Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have spotted a true space oddity: a monster black hole unleashing a spiraling jet of super-hot plasma that looks surprisingly like a cosmic slinky toy moving through outer space.
The cosmic jet is erupting from around the giant black hole at the center of the distant M87 galaxy 50 million light-years from Earth. It is a whopping 5,000 light-years long and is made up of a long string of gas blobs — some of which seem to zigzag along a spiral path while others appear to loop around in a motion that scientists dubbed a "space slinky."
The scientists pieced together a time-lapse video of the "space slinky" jet from 400 observations taken from 1995 to 2008 with the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 and the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the venerable Hubble Space Telescope. They spent eight months analyzing the jet, which is streaking outward from around the supermassive black hole of M87, a giant elliptical galaxy near the center of the Virgo cluster of galaxies.
Study team member Eileen T. Meyer of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., said the jet's spiral motion may be created by a helix-shaped magnetic field surrounding the black hole. But Meyer added it is not clear what makes the jet structure so clumpy.
"Is this a ballistic effect, like cannonballs fired sequentially from a cannon?" Meyer asked in a statement, "or, are there some particularly interesting physics going on, such as a shock that is magnetically driven?"
The researchers found evidence for both scenarios.
"We found things that move quickly," Meyer said. "We found things that move slowly. And, we found things that are stationary. This study shows us that the clumps are very dynamic sources."
The findings could further scientists' understanding of supermassive black holes, which are thought to lurk at the center of most large galaxies. Meyer plans to study three more jets with Hubble data.
"It's always dangerous to have exactly one example because it could be a strange outlier," Meyer said. "The M87 black hole is justification for looking at more jets."
The research is detailed online Aug. 22 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.