The Recipe for Powerful Quasar Jets: Why Some Supermassive Black Holes Launch Powerful Beams

Quasar Jets

Artist’s impression of black hole jets. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

Some supermassive black holes launch powerful beams of material, or jets, away from them, while others do not. Astronomers may now have identified why.

Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, ESA’s XMM-Newton, Germany’s ROentgen SATellite (ROSAT), the NSF’s Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and other telescopes, researchers have studied more than 700 quasars – rapidly growing supermassive black holes – to isolate the factors that determine why these black holes launch jets.

Jets from supermassive black holes can inject huge amounts of energy into their surroundings and strongly influence the evolution of their environments. Previously, scientists realized that a supermassive black hole needs to be spinning rapidly to drive strong jets – but not all rapidly spinning black holes have jets.

“We found there’s another determining factor of whether a supermassive black hole has jets, something called a black hole corona threaded by magnetic fields,” said Shifu Zhu of Penn State University in University Park, Pennsylvania, who led the study. “If you don’t have a black hole corona that’s bright in X-rays, it seems like you don’t have powerful black hole jets.”

In astronomy, the term “corona” is commonly associated with the outer atmosphere of the Sun. Black hole coronas, on the other hand, are regions of diffuse hot gas that lie above and below a much denser disk of material swirling around the gravitational sinkhole. Like the corona around the Sun, black hole coronas are threaded with strong magnetic fields.

“It’s like baking bread where you need a few ingredients to successfully follow the recipe for a loaf,” said co-author Niel Brandt, also of Penn State. “Our results show that one ingredient you can’t do without when ‘making’ powerful quasar jets is a bright corona.”

The team obtained their results by gaining a better understanding of X-ray emission from quasars. Previous studies had shown that quasars without jets show a characteristic link between the strength of their X-ray and ultraviolet emission. This correlation is explained by ultraviolet light from the disk of the black hole striking particles in the corona. The resulting energy boost converts the ultraviolet light to X-rays. 

In the new study, the team chose to investigate the behavior of quasars that do have jets. They found a correlation between how bright the different quasars are in X-rays and ultraviolet light that is remarkably similar to that found for quasars without jets. They concluded that the X-ray emission in the jet-powering quasars is also produced by a black hole corona. 

This conclusion was a surprise. Previously, astronomers thought that X-ray emission from quasars with jets comes from the base of the jets because quasars with jets tend to be brighter in X-rays than those without. The new study confirms this difference in brightness, but concludes that the extra X-ray emission is from brighter black hole coronas than those of quasars with weaker or non-existent jets. 

“The finding that the X-rays in quasars with jets comes from a black hole corona, rather than from the jets, challenges 35 years of thinking about the basic nature of this emission”, said co-author Guang Yang of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. “It could provide new insight into the physics of these jets.” 

An important implication of their work is that to produce powerful jets a quasar must have a bright black hole corona, threaded by strong magnetic fields, in addition to a rapidly spinning black hole. Quasars with fainter black hole coronas and weaker magnetic fields have less powerful or non-existent jets whether or not their supermassive black holes are spinning quickly. 

“Both a quasar’s powerful jets and bright corona occurring together may be fundamentally driven by magnetic fields”, said Zhu.

Stronger magnetic fields may result from a thicker disk caused by a higher rate of matter falling into the black hole.  

These results are similar to those found for stellar-mass black holes, which weigh less than a hundred times the mass of the Sun, compared to supermassive black holes that weigh millions or billions of times the Sun’s mass. This supports the idea that these two different classes of black hole may be similar in terms of their behavior despite their very different sizes. 

The team’s sample consists of 729 quasars with jets. Chandra, XMM-Newton, and ROSAT data were used for 212, 278, and 239 quasars respectively. The size and quality of the team’s sample explain why they were able to uncover the cause of the X-ray emission. 

These results were published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on June 20th, 2020. The other co-authors of the paper are Bin Luo of Nanjing University in China, Jianfeng Wu of Xiamen University in China, and Y.Q. Xue of the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, China.

Reference: “The LxLuvLradio relation and corona–disc–jet connection in optically selected radio-loud quasars” by S. F. Zhu, W. N. Brandt, B. Luo, Jianfeng Wu, Y. Q. Xue and G. Yang, 20 June 2020, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
DOI: 10.1093/mnras/staa1411
arXiv: 2006.13226

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

9 Comments on "The Recipe for Powerful Quasar Jets: Why Some Supermassive Black Holes Launch Powerful Beams"

  1. Sekar Vedaraman | October 17, 2020 at 10:54 pm | Reply


    Coming back to Planet Earth, every baker worth his sa;t knows that the amount of yeast used for baking bread will determine the quality of the Bread.

    Similarly, many of the lessons we learn from such research and findings from the exploration of the stras, and the events in the stars are transferable to the current techology we are using on the planet Earth, as well as methodologies currently used to explore the stars….

    In this case the analogy the use of Yeast is akin to the magnetic field and the use of the samae in Aerospace Engineering like jets and space ship launches! Maybe a cross functional team needs to be set up to expKlore how this type of new nowledge may have possible applications in completely unrelated fields.

    Another huge shortcoming I see in current Scientiific Progress is the comparmentalization of Science and Arts and other non Science related subjects , which is the epitome of foolishness. Look back at History The ego and stupidity of humanity seems to know no bounds.

    Humility and recognition that no matter how intelligent a single scientist or a griup may think themselves to be,grand they are like tiny ants in the scheme of the Universe, as is the Planet Earth. All you have to do is look at the work of the Gaints of Science and the Arts and the marvellous work done by Leonardo Da Vinci and many others too innumerable to name!

    The power of the “non-scientific community brain power” is shortchanged by such an attitude.

    Who knows three and multi dimensional thinking better than an artist with the right perspective who can reimagine the “Space-Time Connundrum” in a far better manner than many so called Scientiists. The Scientists nad Mathematicians are like busy ants building on the vision of such Artists.

  2. Howard Jeffrey Bender | October 18, 2020 at 10:44 am | Reply

    There are certainly some wild theories about active galaxies! But a type that are ignored include UGC 1382, where the stars closest to the center are fainter and younger than the stars further away, exactly the opposite of other galaxies. One view of String Theory suggests that active galaxies, including radio galaxies, Seyfert galaxies, Quasars, and UGC 1382 may be explained using branes rather than Black Holes. Specifics can be found in my YouTube

  3. I believe black holes release powerful beams because it’s acting like a pressure relief valve.

  4. That’s just babble | October 19, 2020 at 12:26 pm | Reply

    You what now?

  5. Herman Dusty Rhodes | November 25, 2020 at 10:58 am | Reply

    By what King Solomon wrote in Proverbs 8:22 through 31, he tells about quasars in the beginning of the. Reaction. He called them swirls (which they are). You have to read this in the Hebrew text and use different definitions than King Jame’s translators used, but use the same Hebrew words. I worked for 30 years on the creation story, and what King Solomon wrote lead me to believe that quasars produced the first chemical elements from their jets. The first generation quasars produced Hydrogen from elementary particles, the the second generation quasars produced the heavier elements with neutrons.

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