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Streaming out from the center of the galaxy M87 like a cosmic
searchlight is one of nature's most amazing phenomena, a black-hole-
powered jet of electrons and other sub-atomic particles traveling at nearly the
speed of light. In this NASA Hubble Space Telescope image, the blue of the jet
contrasts with the yellow glow from the combined light of billions of
unseen stars and the yellow, point-like globular clusters that make
up this galaxy.
At first glance, M87 (also known as NGC 4486) appears to be an ordinary
giant elliptical galaxy; one of many ellipticals in the nearby Virgo
cluster of galaxies. However, as early as 1918, astronomer H.D. Curtis
noted a "curious straight ray" protruding from M87. In the 1950s
when the field of radio was blossoming, one of the brightest radio
sources in the sky, Virgo A, was discovered to be associated with M87
and its jet.
After decades of study, prompted by these discoveries, the source of
this incredible amount of energy powering the jet has become clear.
Lying at the center of M87 is a supermassive black hole, which has
swallowed up a mass equivalent to 2 billion times the mass of our Sun.
The jet originates in the disk of superheated gas swirling around this
black hole and is propelled and concentrated by the intense, twisted
magnetic fields trapped within this plasma. The light that we see
(and the radio emission) is produced by electrons twisting along
magnetic field lines in the jet, a process known as synchrotron
radiation, which gives the jet its bluish tint.
M87 is one of the nearest and is the most well-studied extragalactic
jet, but many others exist. Wherever a massive black hole is feeding
on a particularly rich diet of disrupted stars, gas, and dust, the
conditions are right for the formation of a jet. Interestingly, a
similar phenomenon occurs around young stars, though at much smaller
scales and energies.
At a distance of 50 million light-years, M87 is too distant for Hubble
to discern individual stars. The dozens of star-like points swarming
about M87 are, instead, themselves clusters of hundreds of thousands
of stars each. An estimated 15,000 globular clusters formed very
early in the history of this galaxy and are older than the second
generation of stars, which huddle closer to the center of the galaxy.
The data were collected with Hubble's Wide Field Planetary
Camera 2 in 1998 by J.A. Biretta, W.B. Sparks, F.D. Macchetto,
and E.S. Perlman (STScI). The Hubble Heritage team combined
these exposures of ultraviolet, blue, green, and infrared light
in order to create this color image.
July 6, 2000
Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)