A Tour of Pictor A

A Tour of Pictor A


A Tour of Pictor A Narrator (April Hobart, CXC): The Star Wars
franchise has featured the fictitious “Death Star,” which can shoot powerful beams of radiation
across space. The Universe, however, produces phenomena that often surpass what science
fiction can conjure. The Pictor A galaxy is one such impressive
object. This galaxy, located nearly 500 million light years from Earth, contains a supermassive
black hole at its center. Material falling onto the black hole is driving an enormous
beam, or jet, of particles at nearly the speed of light into intergalactic space. Even though
it is hundreds of thousands of light years away, the jet in Pictor A is actually the
closest one to Earth that displays continuous X-ray emission over a distance of 300,000
light years. Scientists used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory
at various times over 15 years to obtain data on this impressive system. They combined these
X-ray data from Chandra with radio waves from the Australia Telescope Compact Array to try
to gain a deeper understanding of these huge collimated blasts. The researchers determined that the X-ray
emission in the Pictor A jet likely comes from electrons spiraling around magnetic field
lines — a process called synchrotron emission. In this case, the electrons must be continuously
re-accelerated as they move out along the jet. While they think that’s probably what’s
going on, astronomers do not know exactly how this process happens. Yet another ongoing
mystery in a galaxy far, far away.

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