Mysterious ‘relativistic jets’ that shoot from black holes simulated in lab

Supercomputer helps astronomers understand complex behaviour of space phenomenon

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Friday 12 January 2018 19:10 GMT
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Simulations depict powerful plasma jets emitted from black holes that move close to the speed of light

Simulations using one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers have shed light on the behaviour of “relativistic jets”.

The mysterious phenomena involves plasma jets that shoot out of black holes at close to the speed of light, and can extend across millions of light years.

Using a supercomputer, researchers were able to demonstrate that these jets slowly change direction in the sky.

This is the result of space-time itself being dragged into the rotation of the black hole.

“Understanding how rotating black holes drag the space-time around them and how this process affects what we see through the telescopes remains a crucial, difficult-to-crack puzzle,” said Dr Alexander Tchekhovskoy, an astronomer at Northwestern University.

“Fortunately, the breakthroughs in code development and leaps in supercomputer architecture are bringing us ever closer to finding the answers.”

The results of this work were published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Understanding how jets work, and how they change direction, helps scientists understand black holes themselves.

Black holes are fed by gas and magnetic fields, which swirl around to form a rotating disc.

By studying the changes in direction of the black holes’ jets , astronomers can learn about black hole spin as well as the orientation and size of these rotating discs.

Most previous simulations have assumed black holes have aligned discs, but astronomers know that many actually have discs that are tilted – that is, rotating on a separate axis to the disc itself.

This new simulation has demonstrated that tilted discs lead to jets emanating from the black holes that change direction in the sky.

Previous work in this area has been hampered by the large amount of computational power required to make 3D simulations of the regions surrounding a black hole.

In this case, the researchers were able to achieve their results using the Blue Waters supercomputer, one of the most powerful of its kind in the world.

As the phenomena under study by Dr Tchekhovskoy and his colleagues are both highly complex and very far away, simulations offer an effective method of understanding black holes that cannot be achieved by just looking at them though telescopes.

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