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Black Hole and Galaxy Crash Supercharge Blazing-Fast Particles

Supermassive black hole
Particles ejected from a supermassive black hole are caught up in a galaxy merger, blasting the material even more powerfully into space. (Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/R. van Weeren et al.; Optical: NAOJ/Subaru; Radio: NCRA/TIFR/GMRT)

Astronomers have discovered an immense surge of energy coming from a cosmic particle accelerator located about 2 billion light years from Earth. It's powered by interactions between a supermassive black hole and the colliding galaxy clusters Abell 3411 and Abell 3412.

Using several telescopes, researchers have traced extremely energetic particles back to a giant black hole shooting out matter, and this material is then caught up in the galaxy merger, flinging the particles away with even more power. The research team compared the process to launching a rocket into low-Earth orbit and then sending that rocket out of the solar system with another rocket blast.

A supermassive black hole ejects particles that are swept up by a galaxy merger and flung outward even more quickly. This image incorporates X-rays detected with the Chandra X-ray Observatory, radio waves detected with the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope and optical data from the Subaru Telescope. (Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/R. van Weeren et al.; Optical: NAOJ/Subaru; Radio: NCRA/TIFR/GMRT)

"We have seen each of these spectacular phenomena separately in many places," study leader Reinout van Weeren, a fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), said in a statement. "This is the first time, however, that we['ve] seen them clearly linked together in the same system."

Researchers now know that a supermassive black hole in one of the galaxy clusters created a magnetic funnel, which generates powerful electromagnetic fields. The fields then accelerate the gas away from the black hole into a jet. 

Inside the jet, the particles are pushed again when they hit shock waves coming from gas-cloud collisions within the two merging galaxy clusters. The "doubly accelerated" particles shine in radio wavelengths, which have been long observed (but not understood) in Abell 3411 and Abell 3412. 

(Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/R. van Weeren et al.; Optical: NAOJ/Subaru; Radio: NCRA/TIFR/GMRT)


"These particles are among the most energetic particles observed in the universe, thanks to the double injection of energy," co-author Felipe Andrade-Santos, a postdoctoral research fellow at CfA, said in the same statement. The research team said that more examples of these particles should be found in future deep-space studies, using radio and X-ray wavelengths. 

The results were presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Grapevine, Texas, Thursday (Jan. 5) and will be published in the inaugural issue of the journal Nature Astronomy. Observations were performed using the orbiting Chandra X-ray Telescope, the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in India, the National Science Foundation's Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico and several other telescopes.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.