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Astronomers follow twin jets to the center of an active galaxy

Instead of measuring the wavelengths of a pair of jets, researchers measured the magnetic fields surrounding them.

By Brooks Hays
Astronomers follow twin jets to the center of an active galaxy
Researchers traced the convergence point, or base, of a pair of relativistic jets by measuring the magnetic fields that surround them. Photo by Anne-Kathrin Baczko et al./Astronomy & Astrophysics

BONN, Germany, Sept. 19 (UPI) -- Astronomers have developed a new method for locating the heart of an active galaxy. In a new study, researchers with the Max Planck Society traced the origin of a pair of relativistic jets by measuring the magnetic field surrounding a supermassive black hole.

Previously, researchers have located the centers of galaxies by tracing the wavelengths of relativistic jets to their convergence point. Relativistic jets are the streams of X-rays emitted along the axis of rotation of a black hole and its accretion disk.

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Unfortunately, measuring the physical properties of twin jets is prohibitively difficult in many active galaxies. Scientists say their new method, called very-long-baseline interferometry, may offer a more reliable way to locate the heart of an active galaxy.

Instead of measuring the wavelengths of a pair of jets, researchers measured the magnetic fields surrounding them. Astronomers recently used the method to pinpoint the activity center of NGC1052, an elliptical galaxy located 60 million light-years away.

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Scientists measured the magnetic field by imaging the compactness and brightness of the galaxy's central region, using a series of radio telescopes at observatories all over the world -- a collection known as the Global mm-VLBI Array.

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"It yields unprecedented image sharpness, and is soon to be applied to get event-horizon scales in nearby objects," MPI astronomer Eduardo Ros said in a news release.

The symmetry of the magnetic field lines surrounding the galactic center allowed astronomers to track the relativistic jets to a base point.

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The research, detailed in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, marks the most precise location of a supermassive black hole outside the Milky Way. The findings may also help astronomers understand how relativistic jets are formed and powered by the magnetic energy generated by the rotation of a black hole and its accretion disk.

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