Space Slinky Video Compiled From Hubble Images
August 23, 2013

Hubble Images Used To Create Time-Lapse Video Of ‘Space Slinky’

[ Watch the Video: Hubble Takes Movies of Space Slinky ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Astronomers are hoping to gain new insight in the role that black holes play in galaxy evolution thanks to a new series of time-lapse movies compiled from over a decade’s worth of observations from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

The video footage shows what experts have dubbed a “space slinky” – a 5,000 light-year-long jet of superheated gas being ejected from a supermassive black hole. The movies were compiled using over 400 observations of a black hole resting in the center of the elliptical galaxy M87, the US space agency explained in a statement Thursday.

Those observations were collected from 1995 through 2008 using Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 and Advanced Camera for Surveys. They were then analyzed by astronomers over an eight-month period.

“Central, supermassive black holes are a key component in all big galaxies,” explained Eileen T. Meyer of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STSCI) in Baltimore. “Most of these black holes are believed to have gone through an active phase, and black-hole powered jets from this active phase play a key role in the evolution of galaxies. By studying the details of this process in the nearest galaxy with an optical jet, we can hope to learn more about galaxy formation and black hole physics in general.”

“We analyzed several years' worth of Hubble data of a relatively nearby spiraling jet of plasma emitted from a black hole, which allowed us to see lots of details. The only reason you see the distant jet in motion is because it is traveling very fast,” she added. Meyer and her colleagues detail their findings in the August 22 online edition of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The researchers discovered evidence suggesting that the spiral motion of the M87 jet was created by a helix-shaped magnetic field that surrounded the black hole. For example, a bright gas clump known as knot B, located in the outer part of the jet, appears to “zigzag” as though it were moving along a spiral path.

Likewise, they explained that multiple other gas clumps along the jet also appeared to “loop” around an invisible structure, NASA explained. The Hubble data also uncovered information on why the jet seems to be made up of a long string of gas blobs that appear to become brighter or dimmer over time.

“The jet structure is very clumpy. Is this a ballistic effect, like cannonballs fired sequentially from a cannon? Or, are there some particularly interesting physics going on, such as a shock that is magnetically driven?” Meyer asked. She said that her team found evidence supporting both scenarios. “We found things that move quickly. We found things that move slowly. And, we found things that are stationary.”

Their research demonstrates that the clumps are exceptionally “dynamic sources,” she added. Meyer explained that she cannot definitely say that all black-hole-powered jets behave in this manner, so she and her colleagues plan to use Hubble’s instruments in order to analyze three additional jets. “It's always dangerous to have exactly one example because it could be a strange outlier. The M87 black hole is justification for looking at more jets.”

The M87 galaxy is located at the center of the Virgo cluster of approximately 2,000 galaxies, and is located roughly 50 million light years from Earth, the US space agency said. The supermassive black hole located within M87 is said to be several billion times more massive than our sun.