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A giant telescope – eight times the size of Earth – reveals an unprecedented view of a massive cosmic jet


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

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

Using a network of radio telescopes on Earth and in space, astronomers were able to capture the most detailed image ever of a jet from… plasma Shooting from super mass Black hole In the heart of a galaxy far, far away.

The jet, which comes from a distant glowing core called 3C 279, travels at nearly the speed of light and shows complex twisting patterns near its source. These patterns challenge standard theory that has been used for 40 years to explain how these flows form and change over time.

A major contribution to the observations was made by the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, where data from all participating telescopes were combined to create a virtual telescope with an effective diameter of about 100,000 km.

Their findings were recently published in Nature astronomy.

Blizzard 3C 279 interlocking threads

Figure 1: Entangled filaments in blazar 3C 279. High-resolution image of the relativistic plane in this source as observed by RadioAstron. The image reveals a complex in-plane structure with several parsec-sized filaments forming a spiral shape. The collection includes data from radio telescopes around the world and from Earth orbit, including the 100-meter Effelsberg radio telescope. The data were subsequently processed at the Correlation Center of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy. Source: NASA/DOE/FermiLAT Collaboration; Vlba/Jorstad et al.; Radio Astron/Fuentes et al

Insight into the Blazars

Blazers are the brightest and most powerful sources of electromagnetic radiation in the universe. It is a subclass of active galactic nuclei that includes galaxies with a central supermassive black hole that accumulates matter from the surrounding disk. About 10% of active galactic nuclei, classified as quasars, produce relativistic plasma jets. Basars belong to a small fraction of quasars in which we can see these jets directed almost directly towards the observer.

Recently, a team of researchers, including scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn, Germany, imaged the innermost jet region in blazar 3C 279 with unprecedented angular resolution and discovered remarkably regular spiral filaments that may require revision. Theoretical models used so far to explain the processes by which jets are produced in active galaxies.

“Thanks to RadioAstron, the space mission in which the orbiting radio telescope reached as far away as the Moon, and a network of twenty-three radio telescopes distributed across the Earth, we have obtained the highest resolution image of the interior of a planet.” “The stellar jets flowing so far allow us to observe the internal structure of the jets in such detail for the first time,” says Antonio Fuentes, a researcher at the Andalusian Astrophysical Institute (IAA-CSIC) in Granada, Spain, who is leading the work.

Theoretical implications and challenges

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

“This is the first time we’ve seen such filaments so close to the source of the jets, and it tells us more about how the black hole forms the plasma. The inflow has also been observed by two other telescopes, GMVA and EHT, at much shorter wavelengths (3.5 mm and 1.3 mm ), but they could not detect the filamentous figures because they were too faint and too large for this resolution,” says Eduardo Ros, member of the research team and European scheduler for GMVA. “This shows how different telescopes can reveal different features of the same object,” he adds.

Radio Astron VLBI

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

The plasma jets coming from the blazers are not really straight and uniform. They show the twists and turns that show how the plasma is affected by the forces surrounding the black hole. Astronomers studying these twists in 3C279, called spiral filaments, have found that they are caused by instabilities occurring in the jet’s plasma. In the process, they also realized that the old theory they used to explain how flows change over time was no longer valid. Hence, new theoretical models are needed that can explain how these spiral filaments form and evolve near the jet origin. This is a great challenge, but also a great opportunity to learn more about these amazing cosmic phenomena.

“One particularly interesting aspect emerging from our results is that they indicate the presence of a helical magnetic field that confines the flow,” says Guang-Yao Zhao, currently affiliated with MPIfR and a member of the team of scientists. “Therefore, the magnetic field, rotating clockwise around the jet in 3C 279, could be guiding and directing the jet’s plasma moving at 0.997 times the speed of light.”

“Similar spiral filaments have been observed in extragalactic jets before, but on much larger scales where they are thought to be caused by different parts of the jet moving at different speeds and shearing against each other,” adds Andrei Lobanov, another MPIfR scientist on the team of researchers. . “With this study, we are entering entirely new terrain in which these filaments can actually be linked to more complex processes in the immediate vicinity of the black hole that produces the jets.”

The study of the internal flow in 3C279, which now appears in the latest issue of Nature Astronomy, expands the ongoing quest to better understand the role of magnetic fields in the initial formation of relativistic outflows from active galactic nuclei. It emphasizes the many challenges remaining for current theoretical modeling of these processes and demonstrates the need for further improvement of radio astronomical instruments and techniques that provide a unique opportunity to image distant cosmic objects at standard angular resolution.

Technological progress and cooperation

Using a special technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), a virtual telescope with an effective diameter equal to the maximum separation between the antennas involved in the observation is created by combining and correlating data from different radio observatories. RadioAstron project scientist Yuri Kovalev, now at MPIfR, stresses the importance of international health cooperation to achieve such results: “Observatories from twelve countries have been synchronized with the space antenna using hydrogen clocks, forming a virtual telescope the size of the distance to Earth.” moon.”

“The experiments with RADIOASTRON that led to images like this of quasar 3C279 are extraordinary achievements made possible through international observatory scientific collaborations,” says Anton Zinsos, director of MPIfR and one of the driving forces behind the RadioAstron mission over the past two decades. And scientists in many countries. The mission took decades of joint planning before the satellite was launched. Capturing the actual images is made possible by linking large telescopes on the ground such as the Eifelsberg and through careful analysis of the data at our VLBI link center in Bonn.

Reference: “Neamatic structures as the origin of jet radio anisotropy” by Antonio Fuentes, Jose L. Gomez, José M. Martí, Manel Perocho, Guang Yao Zhao, Rocco Lecco, Andre P. Kovalev, Andrew Chell, Kazunori Akiyama, Katherine Bowman, He Sun, Ilji Zhu, Eftalia Traiano, Teresa Toscano, Rohan Dahalli, Marianna Fushi, Leonid I. Gurvits, Svetlana Jorstad, Jae-Young Kim, Alan B. Marcher, Yusuke. Mizuno, Eduardo Ros, and Tuomas Savolainen, October 26, 2023, Nature astronomy.
doi: 10.1038/s41550-023-02105-7

More information

The Earth-to-space radio interferometer mission, active from July 2011 to May 2019, consists of a 10-meter orbiting radio telescope (Spektr-R) and an array of about two dozen of the world’s largest ground-based radio telescopes, including the Effelsberg radio telescope 100 metres. When the signals of the individual telescopes were combined using radio wave interferometry, this group of telescopes provided a maximum angular resolution equivalent to a 350,000-kilometre-diameter radio telescope – roughly the distance between the Earth and the Moon. This makes RadioAstron the highest angular resolution instrument in the history of astronomy. The RadioAstron project was led by the Space Astronomy Center of the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Lavochkin Scientific Society and produced under a contract with the state space company ROSCOSMOS, in cooperation with partner organizations in Russia and other countries. The astronomical data for this mission are being analyzed by individual scientists around the world, leading to results like those shown here.

The following collaborators on the submitted work belong to MPIfR, in order of appearance in the author list: Guang-Yao Zhao, Andrei P. Lobanov, Yuri Y. Kovalev, Efthalia (Thalia) Traianou, Jae-Young Kim, Eduardo Ros, and Tuomas Savolainen. Collaborators Rocco Lecco and Gabriele Bruni were also affiliated with MPIfR during the period of RadioAstron’s mission.

Yuri Y. Kovalev acknowledges the Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

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