Astronomers have captured images of a black hole shooting two "bullets" of ionized gas travelling at nearly a quarter the speed of light. The explosion is so powerful it produces as much energy in one hour as the sun emits in five years.
The black hole H1743-322 sits near the galactic center in the constellation Scorpius — 28,000 light-years from Earth. A sun-like star orbits the black hole, and occasionally H1743-322 will steal matter from the star. The gas and dust that the black hole collects, spins into a disk that gradually spirals around the black hole like waste going down a drain.
The disk emits jets of plasma that spew out in different directions. When the jets turn off, the massive bullet-like explosion follows it. Scientists are not quite sure what causes the jets of plasma to turn off, but they hope capturing the process will help them understand it.
Physicist Gregory Sivakoff of the University of Alberta and his team used the Very Large Baseline Array (a set of 10 radio telescopes located over a 5,000 mile span) to produce the detailed images of the event.
They trained the telescopes on H1743-322 in 2009 just as the lump of material — the ionized blob of gas collected from the star — was headed towards the center. They observed what's known as a quasi-periodic oscillation or QPO, when the blob disappears and the jets turn off. Several days later the first bullet went off, followed by another the next day.
"The simultaneity is clearly an important piece of evidence tying the QPO and the jet," said Sivakoff, even though all the details of the event are not yet completely known.
Sivakoff presented the findings at the meeting of the American Astronomical meeting being held this week.