How are black holes similar to the Death Star from Star Wars?

May 28, 2024  22:23

Supermassive black holes emit so-called jets - subluminal ejections of particles and flashes of focused gamma and x-ray radiation. These jets, somewhat reminiscent of the Death Star from the famous Star Wars, pose a huge danger to everything located at a distance of up to several thousand light years. Now, however, scientists have found that jets can behave unpredictably and their direction can change quite quickly by an angle of up to 90°.

An international team of astronomers observed 16 black holes using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) radio interferometer, looking for signs of gaps in the gas and dust clouds around the black holes - signs of impacts from previous jets. By studying these traces, scientists were able to trace how the directions of the high-energy jets changed over time.

"We found that about a third of the beams are now pointing in completely different directions than before," says astrophysicist Francesco Ubertosi from the University of Bologna in Italy.

"These Death Star black holes are swiveling around and pointing at new targets, like the fictional space station in Star Wars."

30–38% of the jets studied by scientists changed direction by more than 45° over a period of 10 million years or less. This led scientists to believe that this is a relatively common phenomenon for supermassive black holes. In some cases, changes in direction of almost 90° were observed. The fastest transition to another target occurred in just 1 million years - on a cosmic scale this is quite fast.

"Considering that these black holes are likely more than 10 billion years old, we consider a large change in direction over a few million years to be fast," says astrophysicist Gerrit Schellenberger from the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA) in the US.

"Changing the direction of the giant black hole beams in about a million years is analogous to changing the direction of a new battleship in a few minutes."

Because the jets' beams make it difficult for gas to coalesce and form stars, any changes in their orientation have important consequences for the composition of the galaxies around them. Obviously, there will also be consequences for biological life if it falls under such a beam.

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