Super-massive black hole is a galactic super-volcano

The gigantic black hole at the center of the huge M87 galaxy is doing its best impression of an Icelandic volcano, ejecting waves of particles that are disrupting star-creating gas just like bursts of volcanic gas can affect atmospheric ash.

The M87 Galaxy is one of the closer galaxies to the Milky Way, only 50 million light-years away. Measuring 200,000 light-years across, it's about twice the diameter of Earth and one of the brightest objects in the night sky. The galaxy is found at the heart of the Virgo Cluster, home to thousands of galaxies.

The part of the cluster surrounding M87 is full of hot gas that emits a lot of X-rays. This gas is cooling over time, and as it does so it starts to move towards the center of the galaxy. This accelerates the cooling process, helping the gas to clump together into nebulae that will eventually form new stars.

At least, that's what should be happening, if the super-massive black hole at the center of M87 wasn't making a mess of things. The black hole is shooting out waves of highly energetic particles, which push this gas away from galactic center in much the same way hot gas can shoot out of an Earth volcano and lift the hot ash higher up into the atmosphere. In fact, that's pretty much exactly what happened with Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano that grounded most European air traffic earlier this year.

Super-massive black hole is a galactic super-volcano

Amazingly, the similarities don't end there. Just as the volcanic gas created supersonic shockwaves, we're observing the same shockwaves created by the energetic particles slamming up against the nebular gas. You can see the different parts of this cosmically volcanic interaction in the diagram above. You can also click on both images for a closer look at this phenomenon.

[Chandra X-Ray Observatory]