The jet of superheated gas -- 5,000 light-years long -- is being thrown out by a black hole in the giant elliptical galaxy M87, and the observations promise to give a better understanding of how active black holes shape galaxy evolution, the researchers said.
"Central supermassive black holes are a key component in all big galaxies," said Eileen T. Meyer of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md. "Most of these black holes are believed to have gone through an active phase, and black-hole-powered jets from this active phase play a key role in the evolution of galaxies.
The Hubble movies reveal the jet's river of plasma travels in a spiral motion, strong evidence it may be traveling along a magnetic field coiled like a helix, the researchers said.
The magnetic field is believed to arise from a spinning accretion disk of material around a black hole.
"We analyzed several years' worth of Hubble data of a relatively nearby jet, which allowed us to see lots of details," Meyer said.
"By studying the details of this process in the nearest galaxy with an optical jet, we can hope to learn more about galaxy formation and black hole physics in general," she said.
Not all black-hole-powered jets may act like M87, she cautioned.
"It's always dangerous to have exactly one example because it could be a strange outlier," said Meyer, explaining she intends to use Hubble to study three more jets. "The M87 black hole is justification for looking at more jets."