UNITED STATES: NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) has made a groundbreaking discovery by observing a distant supermassive black hole known as Markarian 421, located in the constellation Ursa Major.
This cosmic wonder, classified as a blazar, is captivating astronomers with its highly energetic jet pointed directly toward Earth. Despite the fearsome nature of this event, there is no cause for alarm, as Markarian 421 sits comfortably at a safe distance of approximately 400 million light-years away.
Blazars, like Markarian 421, are actively feeding supermassive black holes that possess swirling disks of matter called accretion disks. These disks gradually supply the black holes with material over time.
Some of the unswallowed material is channeled towards the poles, resulting in a jet of near-light-speed, or relativistic, electromagnetic radiation.
These cosmic phenomena can stretch across millions of light-years, but the mechanisms responsible for launching these jets remain a mystery to scientists.
The IXPE mission, launched in December 2021, focuses on the polarization of magnetic fields, unveiling the orientation of these fields.
As IXPE turned its gaze towards Markarian 421, researchers were stunned by the discovery of a magnetic field with a helical structure at the part of the jet where particles are being accelerated.
Lead researcher and astrophysicist from the Italian Space Agency, Laura Di Gesu, expressed excitement about the findings. The brightness of blazar jets is driven by particles nearing the speed of light, releasing immense energy per Einstein’s theory of special relativity.
Furthermore, their orientation towards Earth causes the light wavelengths associated with their jets to “bunch up,” resulting in increased frequencies and energies.
IXPE has utilized this powerful light to provide a glimpse into the physics at the core of Markarian 421’s jet, even pinpointing the glowing beam’s point of origin. Unexpectedly, the data showed that the magnetic helix not only exists but also hosts areas where particles are undergoing acceleration.
The surprise didn’t end there. During IXPE’s observations, the polarization of the jet experienced drastic changes, rotating nearly 180 degrees in just two days, resembling a corkscrew-like motion.
Shockwaves traveled along the twisted magnetic field from Markarian 421, demonstrating that the helical magnetic field contributes to the acceleration of jet particles to relativistic speeds.
While previous hints of this phenomenon were observed in another blazar witnessed by IXPE, Markarian 501, the latest findings provide more definitive evidence of the role of helical magnetic fields in powering these extreme and bright outflows.
The team behind the IXPE mission intends to further study Markarian 421 and identify other blazars with similar qualities to unravel the mechanism responsible for powering these captivating cosmic phenomena.
As IXPE continues its exploration, astrophysical jets present an exciting field of study for scientists, holding the potential to uncover more celestial secrets and deepen our understanding of the universe.