It may look like these jet beams shooting out from this supermassive black hole is moving faster than the speed of light – but they’re not. Rather this is called a superluminal motion, which is approximately 98% of the speed of light, and it can occur when mass heading in towards the center of a black hole gets propelled out again.
The theory is that mass that fall into gravitationally compact objects, might be superheated and then gets ejected along the spin axis of the object, while strong magnetic fields narrows it all down to a beam. This particular beam of light, however, is located thousands of lightyears away from the black hole, and consists of several “knot-like” structures, which likely means that the in-falling mass came in uneven lumps, rather than an even stream of mass. What makes it so spectacular is that the image is composed of several other photos, taken with the Hubble telescope with years between the captured events, and it shows a collision of two of these identified flying objects in almost the speed of light.
By putting together this series of photos, starting from several decades back, Eileen Meyer of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, noticed how a rear-end collision had occurred between two such knots in a jet beam coming from the supermassive black hole in the galaxy NGC 3862, also known as Abell 1367.
It turned out to be a very rare event that no one so far has been able to capture, and it brings highly interesting insight into how galaxies develop, as the energy coming from this black hole jet is well on its way into the closest neighbor galaxy. That, however, will take another couple of decades to happen.
This way of capturing exciting events in deep space for sure makes those first Charlie Chaplin-movies look like rocket science, considering how many years scientists must wait for the next image to reveal what happened, while they had the time to celebrate their birthdays ten or twenty times in between!