Black holes, phenomena known for sucking in both matter and light, are often observed to spit out narrow streams known to contain electrons.
But these jets don't have a negative charge, so astronomers with Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) set out to find out why.
Using Europe's XMM-Newton space telescope and the Australia Compact Telescope Array (ACTA), astronomers observed atoms shooting from a small black hole called 4U1630-47 at two thirds the speed of light.
Data collected during a brief, intense burst from 4U 1630-47 in 2012 showed highly ionized iron atoms accelerated to high velocity. Such atoms are far more massive than simple electrons, or even lightweight atoms like hydrogen.
The source of the jets' matter appears to be the accretion disk, the hot gas swirling around a black hole as it is pulled in.
The black hole's gravity pulls electrons, protons, and atoms ionized by high heat levels, accelerating them. Some of these particles get thrown back into interstellar space in the jets.
The findings, published Wednesday in Nature, show that in addition to being great cosmic destroyers, black holes are also apparently creators.
The jets, shooting matter and energy back into space, help determine when and where stars are formed.
"Jets from supermassive black holes help determine a galaxy's fate," said Tasso Tzioumis of CSIRO in a statement. "So we want to understand better the impact jets have on their environment."