The Monster in M87

At the center of a galaxy called M87 a monster roars so ferociously that we can see its effects from Earth, 54 million light-years away. This monster is almost unimaginable: a black hole with its mass, 2.6 billion times that of the sun, compacted into — what? A singularity. No volume at all.

Gravity from the immense mass pulls stars into close orbits around the black hole and then shreds them into streams of plasma that spiral into the bottomless depths. A torus of heated gas whirls around the hole and is drawn in, forming magnetic lines of force that cause a gigantic jet of plasma to blast outward. The jet, visible in ground-based telescopes, stretches 5,000 light-years from the hole.

[This Hubble photo of M87 and its jet was taken in 1991. The galaxy is located in the Virgo constellation. Credit: Tod R. Lauer, Sandra M. Faber/NASA]

Without much brain-strain, you can imagine the impact on any solar system in the way of this scorching jet. Presumably the galaxy rotates, dragging new regions into the blast zone. As if that were not dramatic enough, the jet fluctuates.

Its plasma isn’t smooth like a beam of light. Clumps of material blaze in several places along the jet. A glob called HST1 is the brightest. A press release NASA issued earlier in April says HST1 has been changing over the years, as observed by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

The blob of matter brightened “noticeably” from 1999 to 2001; from 2002 to 2005, it underwent a steady rise in brightness; in 2003 the knot of material was brighter than M87’s core, where the black hole is located. In May 2005, the blob “became 90 times brighter than it was in 1999,” the release adds. It faded but flared again in November 2006, although it did not become as brilliant as earlier.

The reason for the brightening and dimming is unknown, though scientists have constructed theories: maybe streams of material ejected somehow converge in certain areas; maybe the jet is unstable.

[Hubble images of changes in blob HST1 in M87 jet. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Madrid (McMaster University)]


I wanted to image the jet, and about a week ago traveled to the San Rafael Swell on a two-night astrophotography expedition. M87 was to be my main target. I ran into many little glitches the first night and solving them took so long that dawn was approaching before I could use the camera. However, I did have my first look at M87. Examining it through a couple of eyepieces, I couldn’t see the jet but figured the right exposure might capture it.

M87 is an elliptical galaxy, a hazy field without many interesting features other than the jet. To my eye, the galaxy seemed to have a grainy quality. I thought that after snoozing all the following day, at nightfall I could start right in using the camera.

But the next night my telescope had broken down. It couldn’t slew or hold steady, and I feared the gears were ruined. I was not able to aim at M87 again, much less take pictures of it.

That was depressing. I came home without photos, telescope out of commission, and with an ear horribly plugged up (partly because of sun block I slathered on myself and inside my ears.) I was in a funk for a week, uncertain if my telescope would work again and almost deaf in my left ear.

But I sought help from the newsgroup devoted to discussing my brand of telescope, a Meade LX200GPS. Three fellows — Todd Wessendorf, John Mahony and Dr. P. Clay Sherrod — came to my rescue, telling me how to deal with the problem.

Today (Monday) I fixed the problem by disabling a slow-motion knob that I never use. The ‘scope slews better than ever. Also, my ear unclogged. This has been a great day for me.

The next dark night that I get outside I intend to chase the monster again.

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