A supermassive black hole has been recorded hurling vast quantities of gas into space at speeds over 625,000 miles per hour.

Seyfert galaxy IC 5063, like nearly all similar collections of stars, contains a tremendous black hole at its center with a mass millions of times greater than our own sun. Many of these enigmatic objects in other galaxies produce jets of ionized gas, which travel along magnetic field lines. Although this action is seen in galaxies throughout the known Universe, the process driving the acceleration remained a mystery, until now.

Astronomers using the Very Large Telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile recorded gas rushing from the center of IC 5063 at tremendous speeds. They found the greatest velocities were found in places where jets from the black hole impacted dense concentrations of gas.

Electrons, traveling close to the speed of light, appear to be driving the acceleration of gas in the system. This causes the outflow of cold gas, mostly hydrogen, into empty space. This same cold gas is required to drive the formation of new stars. When the building blocks of stars and solar systems are lost from a collection of stars, the process can affect galactic evolution.

"Much of the gas in the outflows is in the form of molecular hydrogen, which is fragile in the sense that it is destroyed at relatively low energies. It is extraordinary that the molecular gas can survive being accelerated by jets of electrons moving at close to the speed of light," Clive Tadhunter, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Sheffield, said.

Astronomers at the school worked in conjunction with researchers from the Netherlands Institute of Radio Astronomy and the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard, studying the nearby galaxy. They became the first team to provide direct evidence of a mechanism driving the acceleration of gas away from galactic black holes.

The Milky Way will collide with the Andromeda Galaxy in about five billion years. Data collected from observations of IC 5063 could help astrophysicists better understand what will happen in that distant future. When the two massive collections of stars meet, physicists expect a massive quantity of gas will collect at the center of the collision. Each of the supermassive black holes could expel large quantities of gas to space, affecting how the formations react with one another, and how they evolve over time.

Study of the supermassive black hole in IC 5063 and the jet of gas emanating from its center at extreme velocities was detailed in the journal Nature.

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