Science and Exploration

Galaxy Centaurus A With A Black Hole

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
May 2, 2023
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Galaxy Centaurus A With A Black Hole
Image credit: X-ray: (IXPE): NASA/MSFC/IXPE/S. Ehlert et al.; (Chandra): NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: ESO/WFI; Image processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J.Schmidt

The galaxy Centaurus A (Cen A) shines bright in this image combining data from multiple observatories. In the center of this galaxy is a supermassive black hole feeding off the gas and dust encircling it, and large jets of high-energy particles and other material spewing out. The jet shown at the upper left of this image extends for about 13,000 light-years away from the black hole. Also visible is a dust lane, wrapping around the middle of the galaxy, which may have resulted from a collision with a smaller galaxy millions of years ago.

Colors in this image have been chosen to reflect the sources of data. Blue shows X-ray light captured by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, orange represents X-rays detected by NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) satellite, and optical light seen by the European Southern Observatory in Chile is colored white and gray.

Cen A has been studied extensively since the launch of Chandra in 1999. With IXPE, which launched in 2021, scientists can understand the mysteries of this object in a new way. IXPE is specialized to look at a property of X-ray light called polarization, which relates to the organization of electromagnetic waves. This specialized measurement is helping scientists study how particles become accelerated to high energies and speeds — nearly the speed of light — at extreme cosmic objects like this one.

At Cen A, researchers using IXPE seek to understand what causes the X-ray emission in the jets. So far, scientists have not detected X-ray polarization at Cen A, indicating that particles much heavier than electrons, such as protons, are not producing the X-rays. More insights are to come as scientists analyze the data.

Cen A is found 12 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Centaurus and represents the fifth brightest galaxy in the sky.

About the Chandra mission:

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center controls science operations from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and flight operations from Burlington, Massachusetts. Read more from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

About the IXPE mission:

Part of NASA’s Small Explorer mission series, IXPE launched on a Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in December 2021. It now orbits 370 miles, or roughly 595 kilometers, above Earth’s equator. The mission is a partnership between NASA and the Italian Space Agency, with partners and science collaborators in 13 countries. Ball Aerospace, headquartered in Broomfield, Colorado, manages spacecraft operations.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.