Some Bizarre Black Holes Put On Light Shows | KUOW News and Information

Some Bizarre Black Holes Put On Light Shows

Jan 4, 2017
Originally published on January 4, 2017 2:26 pm

People think of black holes as nightmare vacuum cleaners, sucking in everything in reach, from light to stars to Matthew McConaughey in the movie Interstellar. But, in real life, black holes don't consume everything that they draw in.

"They're actually pretty picky eaters," says Jedidah Isler, an astrophysicist at Vanderbilt University. She spends most days chipping away at one of the universe's biggest mysteries: How do the huge, overactive black holes, known as quasars, work?

"They are billions of times the mass of our own sun," she says. "I like to call them 'hyperactive,' in the sense that they are just taking on a lot more than an average black hole."

And these monster black holes tend to do something strange. They not only reject material, but they use it to put on a space version of a fireworks show, shooting out shredded stars and other things in a stream of light and charged particles.

"Think of them as cosmic water hoses that are spewing out all kinds of particles and light," says Isler.

These are some of the most powerful particle streams ever observed, causing chaos in their host galaxies. Theoretically speaking, if an unlucky planet happened to cross paths with one of those jets, Isler says, it would not be pretty.

"It would basically destroy the planet completely. It would completely eviscerate anything that got in its way," she says. She added, "You know, things are being eviscerated in space all the time. It's part of what makes it fun."

Isler specializes in the subset of quasars that happen to have their jet streams of material pointed toward Earth. These are called blazars, or "blazing quasars."

Telescopes built in the last decade, like NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, have spotted a few thousand blazars. But don't panic.

"Thankfully, they are far enough away that they are not going to have any negative impact on us as human beings," Isler says. One of the closest blazars is 2.5 billion light-years away. "But they do serve as really interesting laboratories to understand these really exotic systems," she says.

"They are able to accelerate particles to 99.99 percent of the speed of light," Isler says. "How does that happen? So, I'm interested in where along that jet do we get this acceleration, and what is the physical mechanism that is responsible for the acceleration of particles that we see?"

By analyzing data from a large sample of blazars, she and her colleagues have found that some particles exhibit high-energy acceleration closer to the black hole than expected, suggesting that differences in blazar jets occur because of an internal process, like turbulence, as opposed to a more consistent factor, like how quickly the blazars draw in material.

If the scientists can figure out how these natural particle accelerators work, they may begin to understand the physical laws that guide these unusual black holes, and maybe a lot of other systems out there that are capable of pulling things in and flinging them out.

"That process happens at many different scales across the universe with many different systems," Isler says. For example, when planets form, they pull nearby material into what are called protoplanetary disks. Sometimes, they shoot that material out in jets, too, though on a much smaller, weaker scale than blazars do.

"There may be some way that this process is universal in our cosmos," she adds. Understanding supermassive, hyperactive black holes could be a first step in figuring that out.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In pop culture, movies especially, black holes are described as nightmarish vacuum cleaners, sucking up everything in reach - infinite darkness.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INTERSTELLAR")

MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (As Cooper) It's all black. TARS, do you read me? It's all blackness.

CORNISH: That's Matthew McConaughey's astronaut character in the film "Interstellar." NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell has learned that black holes don't consume everything they draw in. Some shoot out particles and even put on light shows.

RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: Jedidah Isler is a professional stargazer. As an astrophysicist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, she spends most days chipping away at the mysteries of the universe, one mystery in particular - how really big, overactive black holes work.

JEDIDAH ISLER: They are billions of times the mass of our own sun. I like to call them hyperactive in the sense that they are just taking on a lot more than an average black hole.

BICHELL: And those monster black holes tend to do something odd. They not only reject material, but they use it to put on a space version of a fireworks show, shooting out shredded stars and other things in a stream of lights and charged particles.

ISLER: Think of them as, like, cosmic water hoses that are spewing out all kinds of particles and light and all these things.

BICHELL: Those jets sling material out in some of the most powerful particle streams ever observed. Theoretically speaking, if an unlucky planet happened to cross paths with one of those jets, Isler says it would not be pretty.

ISLER: It'd basically destroy the planet completely.

BICHELL: Isler's specialty is blazars, also known as blazing quasars - or hyperactive, monster black holes with jets pointed toward a familiar part of the universe.

ISLER: Basically pointed at the Earth, not to sound too dramatic (laughter).

BICHELL: Special telescopes developed in the last few years have spotted a few thousand of them.

ISLER: Thankfully, they are far enough away that they are not going to have any negative impact on us as human beings. But they do serve as really interesting laboratories to understand these really exotic systems.

BICHELL: Isler is using data from big telescopes to investigate what makes a monster black hole throw jets of material into space.

ISLER: They are able to accelerate particles to 99.99 percent of the speed of light. How does that happen?

BICHELL: If she and her colleagues can figure out how these natural particle accelerators work, they may begin to understand the physical laws that guide these bizarre black holes and maybe a lot of other things out there because, Isler says, it isn't just blazars that can do this trick of pulling things in and then flinging them out.

ISLER: That process happens at many different scales across the universe with many different systems.

BICHELL: For example, when planets form, they pull material towards them and tend to shoot it out in jets, just on a much smaller, weaker scale than blazars. Isler says it's something nature seems to do really well.

ISLER: There may be some way that this process is universal in our cosmos.

BICHELL: And these supermassive, hyperactive black holes could lead the way to figuring that out.

Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.