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Black Hole Spills a Kaleidoscope of Color

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Yale Univ.

This image from NASA's Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer space telescopes shows a giant jet of particles that has been shot out from the vicinity of a type of supermassive black hole called a quasar. The jet is enormous, stretching across more than 100,000 light-years of space - a size comparable to our own Milky Way galaxy.

Quasars are among the brightest objects in the universe. They consist of supermassive black holes surrounded by turbulent material, which is being heated up as it is dragged toward the black hole. This hot material glows brilliantly, and some of it gets blown off into space in the form of powerful jets.

The jet pictured here is streaming out from the first known quasar, called 3C273, discovered in 1963. A kaleidoscope of colors represents the jet's assorted light waves. X-rays, detected by Chandra, are the highest-energy light in the image are seen at far left in blue (the black hole itself is well to the left of the image). Moving from left to right, the light diminishes in energy, and wavelengths increase in size. Visible light recorded by Hubble is displayed in green, and infrared light caught by Spitzer is red. Areas where visible and infrared light overlap appear as yellow.

Astronomers were able to use these data to help solve the mystery of how light is produced in quasar jets. Light is created in a few very different ways. For example, the Sun generates most of its light via a process called fusion, in which hydrogen atoms are combined, causing an explosion of light. In the case of this jet, even the most energetic light was unexpectedly found to be the result of charged particles spiraling through a magnetic field, a process known as synchrotron radiation.

Fast Facts for 3C273:
Credit  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Yale Univ.
Category  Quasars & Active Galaxies
Coordinates (J2000)  RA 12h 29m 06.70s | Dec +02° 03' 08.60"
Constellation  Virgo
Observation Dates  January 10, June 14, 2000; June 13, 2001; June 5-6, 2002; July 7, November 24, 2003, February 10, April 4, June 30, July 28, 2004
Observation Time  116 hours
Obs. IDs  1711, 1712, 459, 2463, 3573, 3456, 3457, 4430, 4876, 4878, 4879, 4877, 5169
Color Code  Energy (X-ray: Blue; Optical: Green; Infrared: Red)
Instrument  ACIS/HETG
References S. Jester, D.E. Harris, H.L. Marshall, & K. Meisenheimer, ApJ 2006, astro-ph/0605529, New Chandra observations of the jet in 3C273. I. Softer X-ray than radio spectra and the X-ray emission mechanism
Distance Estimate  About 3 billion light years
Release Date  June 20, 2006