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Tuesday, October 26, 1999 Published at 18:37 GMT 19:37 UK


Chandra spies X-ray jets

The X-rays come from gas heated to millions of degrees

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

The Chandra X-ray Observatory has revealed jets of superhot gas erupting from the extraordinary galaxy Centaurus A.

The new image shows the jets shooting over 25,000 light years from the centre of the galaxy.

At a distance of a "mere" 11 million light years from Earth, Centaurus A is noted for its explosive activity and is a favourite target for astronomers.

Also seen were a tantalising group of X-ray sources clustered around the nucleus of the galaxy, where it is thought that a supermassive black hole lives.

Some astronomers believe that the X-ray jets and the cluster of sources may be the result of a titanic collision between galaxies several hundred million years ago.

[ image: Centaurus A: What it looks like in visible light]
Centaurus A: What it looks like in visible light
"This image is great," said Dr Ethan Schreier of the Space Telescope Science Institute, "For twenty years we have been trying to understand what produces the X-rays seen in the Centaurus A jet.

"Now we at last know that the X-ray emission is produced by extremely high energy electrons spiralling around a magnetic field."

Many features in the image excite scientists. "Besides the jets, one of the first things I noticed about the image was the new population of sources in the centre of the galaxy," said Dr Christine Jones from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

"They are grouped in a sphere around the nucleus, which must be telling us something very fundamental about how the galaxy, and the supermassive black hole in the centre, were formed."

Astronomers believe that several hundred million years ago Centaurus A collided with a small spiral galaxy. The collision is believed to have triggered a burst of star formation and supplied gas to fuel the activity of the central black hole.

According to Dr Giuseppina Fabbiano, of Harvard-Smithsonian Institute for Astrophysics, "The Chandra image is like having a whole new laboratory to work in. Now we can see the main jet, the counter jet, and the extension of the jets beyond the galaxy. It is gorgeous in the detail it reveals," she said.

Dr Allyn Tennnant of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center agreed. "It's incredible, being able to see all that structure in the jet," he said. "We have one fine X-ray telescope."

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