What Causes Black Holes To Become The Most Luminous Objects In The Universe?

Credit: Aman Pal on Unsplash

Yes, black holes, the essence of darkness, create some of the brightest lights in space when they release enormous and dazzlingly bright jets of high-energy particles. In particular, the enormous black holes that form the central nuclei of most galaxies. A few of these galactic black holes are ferocious, devouring their surroundings and releasing enormous, blindingly light jets of gas and dust, while others are rather tame like the one at the center of our Milky Way.

Recent observations from the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) orbiting observatory have provided an explanation for the bright nature of these jets: the ionization of subatomic particles known as electrons by shock waves traveling at supersonic speeds away from the black hole.

The blazar was found in the core of the giant elliptical galaxy Markarian 501, which is roughly 460 million light-years from our planet in the way of the constellation Hercules, and was the subject of the research. The distance that light travels in one year is approximately 9.5 trillion kilometers, or one light year (5.9 trillion miles).

Supermassive black holes fueling themselves on gas and other material in the centers of galaxies and emitting two jets of particles in opposed directions power the blazar subclass of quasars. From our perspective point on Earth, one of a blazar’s two jets will be pointed directly toward us.

For a long time, researchers have pondered the question of what causes the particles in the jets generated by blazars to behave in such an illuminating manner. The blazar’s jets can be seen for a million light-years.

New research

A joint project between NASA and the Italian Space Agency, IXPE was started last December to analyze the intensity and polarization of X-ray photons from distant cosmic sources.

After being struck by a shock wave that travels outward within the jet, the particles become charged and generate X-rays as they speed, as discovered by the researchers. If an object is traveling faster than the speed of sound through air, or through a zone composed of charged particles and magnetic fields termed plasma, a shock wave will be generated.

A black hole is the catalyst of this story, an extremely dense object whose gravity is so strong that not even light can escape. The central supermassive black hole of Markarian 501 is roughly a billion times the mass of the sun.

Susan Kowal
Susan Kowal is a serial entrepreneur, angel investor/advisor, and health enthusiast.