Blazing Speed: The Fastest Stuff in the Universe
A sequence of radio observations shows a plasma blob moving away from a blazar's core (right) over about 8.4 months.
Credit: Piner et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF

SAN DIEGO -- If you're light, it's fairly easy to travel at your own speed -- that is to say 186,282 miles per second or 299,800 kilometers per second.

But if you are matter, then it's another matter altogether.

Nothing we know of zips along more quickly than light. Einstein, nearly 100 years ago, said it's not possible. For us, the speed limit makes strange sense: Go faster than light, and you could return before you've left, become your own grandpa, or perform other leaps of cosmic logic.

Fast forward a century. Astronomers are now measuring stuff -- material, matter, things -- that moves at so close to the speed of light you might think it'd make Einstein a bit nervous. His theory of relativity appears not to be endangered by the blazing speeds, though.

Among thee speed demons of the universe are Jupiter-sized blobs of hot gas embedded in streams of material ejected from hyperactive galaxies known as blazars. Last week at a meeting here of the American Astronomical Society, scientists announced they had measured blobs in blazar jets screaming through space at 99.9 percent of light-speed.

"This tells us that the physical processes at the cores of these galaxies ... are extremely energetic and are capable of propelling matter very close to the absolute cosmic speed limit," said Glenn Piner of Whittier College in Whittier, California.

Ponder the power of the fast moving superheated gas, known as plasma:

"To accelerate a bowling ball to the speed newly measured in these blazars would require all the energy produced in the world for an entire week," Piner said. "And the blobs of plasma in these jets are at least as massive as a large planet."

The blazar jets are running around the universe in some fast company. Slightly faster, in fact.

In another study presented at the meeting, ultra high-energy cosmic rays thought to originate in a collision of galaxy clusters are slamming into Earth's atmosphere at more than 99.9 percent of the speed of light. Measurements put the number at 99.9 followed by 19 more nines -- about as close to light-speed as you can get without splitting hairs.

The particles are not light, but actual matter. They are tiny, thought to be mostly protons, but the energy that motivates them is similarly fantastic, and the mechanisms may be intertwined.

Scientists still don't know the exact mechanisms involved in accelerating matter to such high speeds, however. In the case of a blazars, it appears a black hole is involved. Anchoring an active galaxy, a supermassive black hole draws gas inward. Some is swallowed, yet some is simply accelerated and then ejected in high-speed jets along the galaxy's axis of rotation. Intense, twisted magnetic fields may play a role.

Some ultra high-energy cosmic rays might originate in blazar jets, Piner told But other phenomena may serve as particle accelerators in space, such as merging galaxies or colliding black holes.

Piner and his colleagues observed three blazars, known from previous observations to be super speedy, using the National Science Foundation's Very Long Baseline Array radio observatory.

The results confirm the previous work and pin down the speeds with greater accuracy. The phenomenal pace of the plasma blobs looks to have reached a limit.

"All the results from blazar jet observations are in agreement with Einstein's Theory of Special Relativity," Piner said. "The jets are accelerated right up to the edge of the speed-of-light barrier but not beyond, even though these are some of the most efficient accelerators in the universe."

Other articles from last week's AAS meeting: