For the first time, astronomers have cracked the lid open on black hole jets – the little-understood, super-powerful streams of matter sometimes emitted from the centers of black holes. The incredible jets can reach speeds of about 66 percent the speed of light, or about 440 million mph.
The reason for all that velocity? According to Space.com, it’s because the high-speed jets contain heavy atoms.
"We've known for a long time that jets contain electrons, but haven't got an overall negative charge, so there must be something positively charged in them too," James Miller Jones, a researcher at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, who led the radio observations, said in a statement. "Until now it wasn't clear whether the positive charge came from positrons, the antimatter 'opposite' of electrons, or positively charged atoms. Since our results found nickel and iron in these jets, we now know ordinary matter must be providing the positive charge."
Using the European Space Agency’s massive XMM-Newton space telescope, researchers found the first evidence of heavy iron and nickel atoms in the jets emitted from 4U1630-47, a well-documented black hole a few times bigger than the sun. Atoms with a positive charge are much heavier than the positrons astronomers thought might be responsible for the powerful jet streams. This means the jets can draw far more energy from the black hole than scientists previously believed. According to Astronomy Magazine, an iron atom is about 100,000 times more massive than a single electron.
“The discovery suggests that jets are powered by the black hole’s accretion disk — a belt of hot gas swirling around the black hole — and not by the spin of the black hole itself, which would be more likely to produce jets containing only light particles,” Astronomy noted.
What’s so important about black hole jets? According to scientists, they could be partly responsible for what happens to galaxies.
“Jets from supermassive black holes help determine a galaxy’s fate — how it evolves,” Tasso Tzioumis from Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia, told Astronomy Magazine. “So we want to understand better the impact jets have on their environment.”
The new study of black hole jets could also shed light on another stellar enigma: where the jets are emitted from. "Our results suggest it's more likely the disk is responsible for channeling the matter into the jets, and we are planning further observations to try and confirm this," Miller-Jones said.