In a groundbreaking discovery, a telescope surpassing the size of Earth has detected a plasma rope in the vastness of the Universe. Utilizing a network of radio telescopes both on Earth and in space, astronomers have unveiled the most intricate view ever captured of a plasma jet emanating from a supermassive black hole situated at the center of a remote galaxy.
The jet originates from the heart of a distant blazar known as 3C 279, hurtling through space at nearly the speed of light and revealing intricate, twisted patterns near its source. Surprisingly, these patterns challenge the conventional theory that has stood for four decades, attempting to explain the formation and evolution of such jets over time.
The Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, played a pivotal role in these observations. The institute facilitated the combination of data from all participating telescopes, creating a virtual telescope with an effective diameter of approximately 100,000 kilometers.
Blazars, a subclass of active galactic nuclei, are the brightest and most powerful sources of electromagnetic radiation in the cosmos. They consist of galaxies with a central supermassive black hole accreting matter from a surrounding disk. About 10% of active galactic nuclei, classified as quasars, generate relativistic plasma jets. Blazars specifically belong to a small fraction of quasars where these jets point almost directly at the observer.
Recently, a team of researchers, including scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, imaged the innermost region of the jet in the blazar 3C 279 with unprecedented angular resolution. They detected remarkably regular helical filaments, suggesting a need for a reevaluation of the theoretical models used thus far to explain the processes behind jet production in active galaxies.
Antonio Fuentes, a researcher at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia in Granada, Spain, and leader of the research, expressed gratitude for the RadioAstron space mission, which enabled the highest-resolution image of a blazar’s interior to date.
The new insights into the plasma jet of 3C 279, facilitated by the RadioAstron mission, reveal previously unseen details. The jet, extending over 570 light-years from the center, displays at least two twisted filaments of plasma. Eduardo Ros, a member of the research team, highlighted the complementary role of different telescopes, noting that the GMVA and the EHT observed the inner jet at shorter wavelengths but couldn’t detect the filamentary shapes due to their faintness and size.
Contrary to the previous belief that plasma jets from blazars are straight and uniform, the twists and turns observed in 3C 279, referred to as helical filaments, indicate the influence of forces around the black hole. This led to the realization that the existing theory explaining jet evolution over time is no longer sufficient. Consequently, the astronomers emphasize the necessity for new theoretical models to elucidate the formation and evolution of helical filaments near the jet’s origin.
Guang-Yao Zhao, affiliated with the MPIfR, pointed out an intriguing aspect suggesting the presence of a helical magnetic field confining the jet. This magnetic field, rotating clockwise around the jet in 3C 279, might play a role in directing and guiding the jet’s plasma, moving at an astonishing 0.997 times the speed of light.
Andrei Lobanov, another scientist from MPIfR, highlighted the novelty of the study, connecting these filaments to intricate processes in the immediate vicinity of the black hole producing the jet.
The study, featured in the latest issue of Nature Astronomy, contributes to a better understanding of the role of magnetic fields in the initial formation of relativistic outflows from active galactic nuclei. It underscores the challenges in current theoretical modeling and emphasizes the need for advancements in radio astronomical instruments and techniques for imaging distant cosmic objects at record angular resolutions.
The technological advancements that enabled this discovery relied on Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), creating a virtual telescope by combining data from different radio observatories. Yuri Kovalev, the RadioAstron project scientist, emphasized the importance of international collaboration, with observatories from twelve countries synchronized to form a virtual telescope the size of the distance to the Moon.
Anton Zensus, director of the MPIfR and a key figure behind the RadioAstron mission, highlighted the exceptional achievements resulting from international scientific collaboration, spanning decades of planning and execution. The success of the mission underscores the significance of connecting large ground-based telescopes and meticulous data analysis for unlocking the mysteries of the cosmos.