Some of the most stunning views of our sky occur at sunset, when sunlight pierces the clouds, creating a mixture of bright and dark rays formed by the clouds’ shadows and the beams of light scattered by the atmosphere. Astronomers studying the nearby galaxy IC 5063 are tantalized by a similar effect in this new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. In this case, a collection of narrow bright rays and dark shadows is seen beaming out of the blazingly bright center of the active galaxy, shooting across at least 36,000 light-years.
Astronomers have traced the rays back to the galaxy’s core, the location of an active supermassive black hole. The black hole is feeding on infalling material, producing a powerful gusher of light from superheated gas near it. Although the researchers have developed several plausible theories for the lightshow, the most intriguing idea suggests that the shadows are being cast into space by an inner tube-shaped ring, or torus, of dusty material surrounding the black hole.
IC 5063 resides 156 million light-years from Earth.