The giant black hole of galaxy M87 shoots jets at nearly light speed

A new study published Nov. 4 2021 created a computer model of the black hole M87.
A new study published Nov. 4 2021 created a computer model of the black hole M87. (Image credit: Alejandro Cruz-Osorio, Goethe University Frankfurt)

The first (and only) black hole to ever have its snapshot taken from Earth shoots out vast jets of plasma that travel near the speed of light, new computer models show. 

The black hole is located 55 million light-years from Earth in the Virgo constellation lies the galaxy Messier 87, or M87, which harbors a black hole 6.5 billion times the mass of our sun at its core. In 2019, an international research collaboration called the Event Horizon Telescope imaged the black hole, the first-ever image of its kind. 

The black hole in M87 shoots a relativistic jet, or a plasma jet, outwards at close to the speed of light. In a new study, an international team of researchers have gleaned new insights about the black hole and its jet by modeling it in incredible detail with computers.

Related: What happens at the center of a black hole?

More: Black holes of the universe (images)

The team used three-dimensional supercomputer simulations to model the region of the M87 black hole and its accretion disk, a disk of gas, plasma and various particles that surrounds and feeds a black hole. They took into account temperatures, matter densities and magnetic fields that are likely to exist with this black hole based on existing observations. 

This helped the researchers create a computer model of the black hole region, which they used to track and study the movement of photons, or light particles, in the black hole's jet. They then translated this photon tracking data from the computer model into radio images and compared it with real-life observations of the black hole.

They found that their computer model matched well against real-life data collected by radio telescopes and satellites, giving confidence that their model was a fairly accurate representation of the black hole region. 

"Our theoretical model of the electromagnetic emission and of the jet morphology of M87 matches surprisingly well with the observations in the radio, optical and infrared spectra," the study's lead author Alejandro Cruz-Osorio  of the Institute of Theoretical Physics at Goethe University, said in a statement.

Now, while researchers have been able to study and observe the black hole in M87 (especially thanks to the image created in 2019) questions still remain about how such a powerful relativistic jet comes to be and how it remains stable, shooting across immense distances in space.

According to Cruz-Osorio,the data collected about the black hole's jet from their computer model shows how the jet might work. It "tells us that the supermassive black hole M87* is probably highly rotating and that the plasma is strongly magnetized in the jet, accelerating particles out to scales of thousands of light-years," he said.

Co-author Luciano Rezzolla,   also a researcher at the Institute for Theoretical Physics at Goethe University, added that, in addition to advancing our understanding of the M87black hole, the team's radio images the computer simulation are in line with predictions made by Einstein's theory of general relativity.

"The fact that the images we calculated are so close to the astronomical observations is another important confirmation that Einstein’s theory of general relativity is the most precise and natural explanation for the existence of supermassive black holes in the center of galaxies," Rezzolla said. "While there is still room for alternative explanations, the findings of our study have made this room much smaller."

This work was published Nov. 4 in the journal Nature Astronomy.

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.