Peering Deeper Into the Core of M87: At top left, a VLA image of the galaxy shows the radio-emitting jets at a scale of about 200,000 light-years. Subsequent zooms progress closer into the galaxy’s core, where the supermassive black hole resides. In the artist’s conception (background). the black hole illustrated at the center is about twice the size of our Solar System, a tiny fraction of the size of the galaxy, but holding some six billion times the mass of the Sun. Usi
sing a worldwide combination of diverse telescopes, astronomers have discovered that a giant galaxy’s bursts of very high energy gamma rays are coming from a region very close to the supermassive black hole at its core. The discovery provides important new information about the mysterious workings of the powerful “engines” in the centers of innumerable galaxies throughout the Universe.
The galaxy M87, 50 million light-years from Earth, harbors at its center a black hole more than six billion times more massive than the Sun. Black holes are concentrations of matter so dense that not even light can escape their gravitational pull. The black hole is believed to draw material from its surroundings — material that, as it falls toward the black hole, forms a tightly-rotating disk.
The scientists reported their findings in the July 2 online edition of the journal Science.
Processes near this “accretion disk,” powered by the immense gravitational energy of the black hole, propel energetic material outward for thousands of light-years. This produces the “jets” seen emerging from many galaxies. In 1998, astronomers found that M87 also was emitting flares of gamma rays a trillion times more energetic than visible light.
However, the telescopes that discovered these bursts of very high energy gamma rays could not determine exactly where in the galaxy they originated. In 2007 and 2008, the astronomers using these gamma-ray telescopes combined forces with a team using the National Science Foundation’s continent-wide Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), a radio telescope with extremely high resolving power, or ability to see fine detail.
“Combining the gamma-ray observations with the supersharp radio ‘vision’ of the VLBA allowed us to see that the gamma rays are coming from a region very near the black hole itself,” said Craig Walker, of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).