Giant telescope – 8 times the size of Earth – reveals unprecedented view of gigantic cosmic jet

Astronomers have obtained unprecedented images of a plasma jet from a supermassive black hole in the blazar 3C 279, revealing complex patterns that challenge existing theories. This international effort, using advanced radio telescope networks, has detected helical filaments near the jet source, indicating the possible role of magnetic fields in shaping such jets. (Artist’s opinion.)

A telescope larger than Earth has discovered a plasma rope in the universe.

Using a network of radio telescopes on Earth and in space, astronomers have captured the most detailed view of the jet yet. Plasma Shooting from a supermassive black hole In the heart of a distant galaxy.

The jet from the heart of a distant blazar called 3C 279 travels at nearly the speed of light and displays complex, twisted patterns near its source. The patterns challenge the standard theory used for 40 years to explain how these jets form and change over time.

A major contribution to the observations was made possible by the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, which combined data from all participating telescopes to create a virtual telescope approximately 100,000 kilometers in diameter.

Their findings were recently published Natural Astronomy.

Entangled fibers Blazer 3C 279

Figure 1: Filaments trapped in blazar 3C 279. High-resolution image of the relativistic jet in this source by the RadioAstron program. The image reveals a complex structure within the jet with several parsec-sized filaments forming a helix pattern. The array contains data from radio telescopes around the world and in Earth orbit, including the 100-m radio telescope Effelsberg. The data were post-processed at the Communication Center of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy. Credit: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration; VLBA/Jorstad et al; RadioAstron/Fuentes et al

Insights into Blazars

Blasers are the brightest and most powerful sources of electromagnetic radiation in the universe. They are a subclass of active galactic nuclei, consisting of galaxies with a central supermassive black hole collecting material from the surrounding disc. About 10% of active galactic nuclei, classified as quasars, produce relativistic plasma jets. Belonging to a small subset of bazaar quasars, we can see these jets pointing directly at the observer.

Recently, a team of researchers, including scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn, Germany, imaged the interior of the jet at unprecedented angular resolution in 3C 279 and found remarkably regular helical filaments. A revision of the theoretical models used up to now is needed to explain the processes by which jets are produced in active galaxies.

„Thanks to RadioAstron, the spaceflight, the radio telescope that reached the distance to the Moon and the network of twenty-three radio telescopes distributed around the Earth, we have obtained the highest resolution image of the interior of a blazar to date, allowing us to observe the internal structure of a jet in such detail for the first time,” said the blazar in Granada, Spain. Antonio Fuentes, a researcher at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA-CSIC), says.

Theoretical Implications and Challenges

A new window into the universe opened by the RadioAstron mission has revealed new details on the plasma jet of 3C 279, a blazar with a supermassive black hole at its center. At least two twisted plasma filaments in the jet extend more than 570 light-years from the center.

„This is the first time we’ve seen such filaments so close to the origin of the jet, and they tell us more about how the black hole shapes the plasma. The inner jet has been observed at much shorter wavelengths (3.5 mm and 1.3 mm) by two other telescopes, GMVA and EHT, but they also show filament patterns. could not be detected because they were too faint and too large for this resolution,” says Eduardo Rose, member of the research team and GMVA’s European cataloguer. „This shows how different telescopes can reveal different aspects of the same object,” he adds.

RadioAstron VLBI

Figure 2: The RadioAstron VLBI observatory provides a virtual telescope up to eight times the Earth’s diameter (350,000 km maximum baseline). Credit: Roscosmos

Jets of plasma from blazars are not really straight and uniform. They show twists and turns that show how the plasma is affected by the forces around the black hole. Astronomers studying these twists in 3C279, known as helical filaments, found that they were caused by instabilities in the jet plasma. In the process, they also realized that the old theory they used to explain how jets changed over time no longer worked. Therefore, new theoretical models are needed to explain how such helical filaments form and develop very close to the origin of the jet. It’s a big challenge, but a great opportunity to learn more about these amazing cosmic phenomena.

„A particularly intriguing aspect arising from our results is that they suggest the existence of a helical magnetic field controlling the jet,” says Guang-Yao Zhao, currently affiliated with MPIfR and a member of the team of scientists. „Therefore, it is probably the magnetic field rotating clockwise around the jet in 3C 279 that drives and directs the jet plasma at 0.997 times the speed of light.”

„Similar helical filaments have previously been observed in extragalactic jets, but on much larger scales they are believed to be the result of different parts of the flow moving at different speeds and intersecting each other,” says Andrei Lobanov, another MPIfR scientist in the team of researchers. . „With this study, we are entering a completely new landscape in which these filaments can actually be linked to the more complex processes near the black hole that produce the jet.”

The study of 3C279’s inner jet, now featured in the latest issue of Nature Astronomy, extends the ongoing effort to better understand the role of magnetic fields in the initial formation of relativistic outflows from active galactic nuclei. This emphasizes the many remaining challenges for the current theoretical modeling of these processes and demonstrates the need for further development of radio astronomy instruments and techniques, which provide a unique opportunity to image distant cosmic objects at record angular resolution.

Technological advances and cooperation

By combining and correlating data from different radio observatories using a special technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), a virtual telescope is created with an effective diameter equal to the maximum separation between the antennas involved in the observation. Yuri Kovalev, a RadioAstron project scientist now at MPIfR, emphasizes the importance of healthy international cooperation to achieve such results: „The observatories of twelve countries are synchronized with the space antenna using hydrogen clocks, creating a virtual telescope. The Moon.”

Anton Zensus, director of the MPIfR and one of the driving forces behind the RadioAstron mission over the past two decades, says: “Experiments with RadioAstron have led to images like these for the quasar 3C279, exceptional achievements made possible by the collaboration of international laboratories. and scientists in many countries. The mission took decades of collaborative planning before the satellite was launched. Real images are made possible by linking large telescopes on the ground like Effelsberg and carefully analyzing the data at our VLBI Communication Center in Bonn.

Reference: Antonio Fuentes, Jose L. Gomez, Jose M. Marty, Manel Perucho, Kwang-Yao Zhao, Rocco Ligo, Andre P. „Filament structures as origin of blazar jet radio variability” by Lobanov, Gabriele Bruni, Yuri Y. Kovalev, Andrew Sale, Kazunori Akiyama, Catherine L. Baumann, He Sun, Ilje Cho, Eftalia Trianou, Teresa Toscano, Rohan Dahle, Mariana Foshi, Leonid I. Kurwitz, Svetlana Jorstad, Jae-Young Kim, Alan B. Mizuno, Eduardo Ros and Tuomas Savolinen, 26 October 2023, Natural Astronomy.
DOI: 10.1038/s41550-023-02105-7

More info

The Earth-to-Space Interferometer RadioAstron mission, operational from July 2011 to May 2019, consisted of the 10-meter orbital radio telescope (Spektr-R) and an array of two dozen of the world’s largest ground-based radio telescopes. 100-m Effelsberg Radio Telescope. When the signals of the individual telescopes were combined using radio interference, this array of telescopes provided a maximum angular resolution equivalent to a radio telescope with a diameter of 350,000 km – almost the distance between the Earth and the Moon. This made RadioAstron the highest angular resolution instrument in the history of astronomy. The RadioAstron project was conducted by the Astro Space Center of the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Scientific and Production Association of Lavoch under a contract with the State Space Corporation ROSCOSMOS, together with partner organizations in Russia and other countries. Astronomical data from this mission have been analyzed by individual scientists around the world, yielding results similar to those presented here.

The following collaborators on the presented work are affiliated with MPIfR, in the order in which they appear in the author list: Guang-Yao Zhao, Andrei P. Lobanov, Yuri Y. Kovalev, Efthalia (Thalia) Traianou, Jae-Young Kim, Eduardo Ros, and Tuomas Savolinen. During the RadioAstron mission, collaborators Rocco Ligo and Gabriele Bruni were also attached to the MPIfR.

Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Prize from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to Yuri Y. Kovalev agreed.

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