The universe is so big, and it takes so long for most celestial objects to change,
that it is rare a telescope can catch something in motion. It helps if the target is
moving at nearly the speed of light, and that the Hubble Space Telescope’s crystal-clear view can
catch subtle changes in one-tenth the time it might take for a ground-based
telescope. Astronomers collected 500 Hubble pictures, taken over 13 years to
make a movie flipbook of a blowtorch-like jet of gas blasted from the vicinity of a
supermassive black hole. The black hole resides in the center of the galaxy M87.
The jet has been known about for nearly a century. But the new Hubble movie
provides a look at the jet’s dynamics. The movie shows that the hot plasma is
spiraling along magnetic field lines generated by the 7-billion-solar-mass black
hole. These so-called extragalactic jets are seen elsewhere in the universe, but
this comparatively nearby jet is offering a detailed look at what powers and aligns
them. When Lick Observatory astronomer Heber Curtis first saw the jet in 1918
he described it as “a curious straight ray.” Little might Curtis have imagined that
we’d someday follow it blazing across space.
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