A supermassive black hole is shooting a laser-like jet at the Earth

Scientists have found a supermassive black hole spitting a high-energy jet towards the Earth – with a surprising twist.

The universe is full of supermassive black holes that eject powerful jets of high-energy particles, creating sources of extreme brightness in the vastness of space.

When one of those jets points directly at Earth, scientists call the black hole system a blazar.

This week, an international team of astrophysicists published new findings about a blazar called Markarian 421.

Thankfully, it’s nothing to worry about as this blazar is at a safe distance of about 400 million light-years away.

Located in the constellation Ursa Major, Markarian 421 surprised scientists with evidence that the magnetic field in the jet has a helical structure, meaning that it twists and turns as it travels away from the black hole.

The team’s analysis was done using Nasa’s IXPE (Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer), which measures the direction of the electric field in a wave, also known as polarization.

By measuring the polarization of X-rays, astronomers can learn about the structure of the magnetic fields in black holes.

The team’s observations revealed that the X-rays from Markarian 421 are highly polarized due to the alignment of magnetic fields in the blazar jet.

‘Markarian 421 is an old friend for high-energy astronomers,’ said Italian Space Agency astrophysicist Laura Di Gesu, lead author of the new paper.

‘We were sure the blazar would be a worthwhile target for IXPE, but its discoveries were beyond our best expectations, successfully demonstrating how X-ray polarimetry enriches our ability to probe the complex magnetic field geometry and particle acceleration in different regions of relativistic jets.’

Jets like the one beaming out of Markarian 421 can extend millions of light-years in length. They are especially bright because as particles approach the speed of light, they give off a tremendous amount of energy and behave in weird ways.

Blazar jets are extra bright because, just like an ambulance siren sounds louder as it approaches, light pointed toward us also appears brighter. That’s why blazars can outshine all of the stars of the galaxies they inhabit.

Despite decades of study, scientists still don’t fully understand blazar jets, but IXPE gives them an unprecedented view of these targets, their physical geometry, and where their emissions originate.

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