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Friday, January 8, 1999 Published at 13:04 GMT


A bubble-blowing black hole

Blowing bubbles in deep space

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

They look like wisps of smoke from a dying candle. But in this case the candle is a supermassive black hole at the heart of a distant galaxy.

It is as though the black hole is blowing two giant bubbles. These new observations of the giant M87 galaxy may force a reappraisal of our understanding of black holes at the centre of such galaxies.

The image of M87 was made by the Very Large Array (VLA) of radio telescopes situated in New Mexico.

[ image: The jet of energy from the central black hole]
The jet of energy from the central black hole
"We think that the material is flowing outward from the galaxies core into the bright, radio-emitting bubbles," said VLA astronomer Frazer Owen.

Black holes are believed to be at the centre of most galaxies, including our own. M87 in the constellation of Virgo is some 50 million light years from Earth.

It is the main galaxy at the heart of the gigantic Virgo supercluster that is made up of thousands of galaxies. Our own galaxy is on the Virgo outskirts.

Spewing out from the black hole, which is not visible, are jets thought to be composed of subatomic particles.

[ image: Frazer Owen]
Frazer Owen
These jets appear to form two massive lobes which Frazer Owen described as bubbles.

"The black hole is spewing out material over an incredibly large region, about 200,000 light years across," he said.

The bubbles, almost a hundred thousand light-years in size (the size of our own galaxy) sit in a region of space that is known to radiate X-rays, radiation of much higher energy than radio waves.

It was believed that the X-rays were given off by material drawn into the galaxy from outside. But the new image casts doubt on this.

"Not only did we see beautiful details we have not seen before, we have also got a new and more complicated idea of the physics of the region," added Owen.

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