A black hole only slightly heavier than our Sun is emitting the most powerful jets of energy ever seen, rivaling that of quasars a million times larger, and creating a bubble of hot gas and fast-moving particles 1000 light-years across.
When black holes devour matter, they release massive amounts of energy. Physicists had thought this energy mostly took the form of radiation, primarily X-rays. However, as this newly discovered black hole so dramatically illustrates, at least as much energy, if not a great deal more, is released as jets of fast moving particles. These streams of particles smash headlong into the interstellar gas nearby, which heats up the gas and causing rapid expansion. The resulting bubble is a mix of the hot gas and the particles from the black hole.
The bubble has a diameter of 1000 light-years and is expanding at about a million kilometers per hour. The black hole, located 12 million light-years away in the outer spiral of galaxy NGC 7793, has been blowing the bubble for about 200,000 years. Pretty much everything about this black hole and its bubble boggles comprehension, as codiscoverer Robert Soria notes:
"The length of the jets in NGC 7793 is amazing, compared to the size of the black hole from which they are launched. If the black hole were shrunk to the size of a soccer ball, each jet would extend from the Earth to beyond the orbit of Pluto."
This discovery will help astronomers better understand the relationship between black holes like this one, which formed from collapsed stars, and the supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies. It was thought that these particle jets were primarily a feature of these more gigantic black holes, but now astronomers suspect they had just missed them in the smaller black holes. If nothing else, a massive gas bubble 1000 light-years wide should provide a pretty good target to search for.