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M87: Galactic Super-volcano in Action

  • A new composite image of M87 features X-rays from Chandra (blue) and radio emission from the Very Large Array (red-orange).

  • This massive galaxy contains a giant black hole at its core that is producing massive jets of energetic particles.

  • The interaction of these jets with surrounding hot gas has similar properties to the recent eruption of an Icelandic volcano.

This image shows the eruption of a galactic "super-volcano" in the massive galaxy M87, as witnessed by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and NSF's Very Large Array (VLA). At a distance of about 50 million light years, M87 is relatively close to Earth and lies at the center of the Virgo cluster, which contains thousands of galaxies.

The cluster surrounding M87 is filled with hot gas glowing in X-ray light (shown in blue) that is detected by Chandra. As this gas cools, it can fall toward the galaxy's center where it should continue to cool even faster and form new stars.

However, radio observations with the VLA (red-orange) suggest that in M87 jets of very energetic particles produced by the black hole interrupt this process. These jets lift up the relatively cool gas near the center of the galaxy and produce shock waves in the galaxy's atmosphere because of their supersonic speed.

The interaction of this cosmic "eruption" with the galaxy's environment is very similar to that of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland that occurred in 2010. With Eyjafjallajokull, pockets of hot gas blasted through the surface of the lava, generating shock waves that can be seen passing through the grey smoke of the volcano. This hot gas then rises up in the atmosphere, dragging the dark ash with it. This process can be seen in a movie of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano where the shock waves propagating in the smoke are followed by the rise of dark ash clouds into the atmosphere.

Video: Omar Ragnarsson

In the analogy with Eyjafjallajokull, the energetic particles produced in the vicinity of the black hole rise through the X-ray emitting atmosphere of the cluster, lifting up the coolest gas near the center of M87 in their wake. This is similar to the hot volcanic gases that drag up the clouds of dark ash. And just like the volcano here on Earth, shock waves can be seen when the black hole pumps energetic particles into the cluster gas. The energetic particles, coolest gas and shock waves are shown in a labeled version.

M87 Labeled

Fast Facts for M87:
Credit  X-ray (NASA/CXC/KIPAC/N. Werner, E. Million et al); Radio (NRAO/AUI/NSF/F. Owen) Volcano image: Omar Ragnarsson
Release Date  August 18, 2010
Scale  Image is 14 arcmin across (about 200,000 light years).
Category  Black Holes, Quasars & Active Galaxies
Coordinates (J2000)  RA 12h 30m 49.40s | Dec +12° 23´ 28.00"
Constellation  Virgo
Observation Date  2 pointings in Jul 2002, and 7 between Jan and Nov 2005
Observation Time  159 hours (6 days 15 hours)
Obs. ID  2707, 3717, 5826-5828, 6186, 7210-7212
Instrument  ACIS
Also Known As NGC 4486
References Werner, N. et al, 2010, MNRAS, in press. Million, E. et al. 2010, MNRAS, in press.
Color Code  X-ray (blue), Radio (red-orange)
Distance Estimate  About 50 million light years
distance arrow
Visitor Comments (24)

So wonderful.

Posted by Alice x on Friday, 02.7.14 @ 03:43am

This is very import.

Posted by mario antonio on Wednesday, 11.16.11 @ 09:45am

Thanks for your comment. In M87 we cannot see the horizon of the black hole and in fact this has never been observed in any black hole. Because of its relative proximity we can see the *effects* of M87's black hole in more detail than usual. The results for M87 are interesting, but I wouldn't call them abnormal.
P.Edmonds, CXC

Posted by P. Edmonds on Tuesday, 08.31.10 @ 09:12am

Dear Prithvi,
Thanks, you are right that the jets are moving at relativistic speeds, but these are also supersonic speeds. It's not obvious, but it's interesting that the speed of sound in the hot gas in galaxy clusters is hundreds of miles per second, so it's much higher than the speed of sound in the Earth's atmosphere.
P.Edmonds, CXC

Posted by P. Edmonds on Tuesday, 08.31.10 @ 09:10am

Dear J. Johnson,
Astronomers use both "hot gas" and "plasma" to describe the hot atmospheres in galaxy clusters and other objects, so we have adopted the less technical term. In discussing the analogy, we describe several similarities between the eruption in M87 and the one in Iceland. Obviously the amounts of energy and the physical size are very different, but that only makes the analogy more interesting. Finally, the observational evidence for black holes is considered to be strong by most astronomers, even if it's not yet watertight.
P.Edmonds, CXC

Posted by P. Edmonds on Tuesday, 08.31.10 @ 09:08am

Dear rav,
This is an interesting idea, but a lot of evidence supports the idea that M87 contains a supermassive black hole at its center, just like many other galaxies including our own. Note that material can escape from a black hole as long as it is outside the event horizon. Also, jets have been seen around many different types of object that have material falling onto them, including stellar-mass black holes, neutron stars, white dwarfs and young, solar-type stars.
P.Edmonds, CXC

Posted by P. Edmonds on Tuesday, 08.31.10 @ 09:05am

Wow. Great analysis. I am fairly new at this subject. Found your term "galactic atmosphere" quite appropriate. Never thought of it as an "atmosphere" before.

Posted by Andrew on Saturday, 08.28.10 @ 11:14am

It is really a superb information. Cheers NASA, you have really done a great job. Thanks for taking us so close to the real nature.

Posted by DexterRidlon on Thursday, 08.26.10 @ 00:57am

The mysteries of the universe continue. Great photo's of M87. Black holes are one of the most interesting phenomena of outer space. It will take years before they are truly understood. The next generation of space telescopes will give us even better clarity of these distant wonders.

Posted by marv brilliant on Tuesday, 08.24.10 @ 06:33am

Could the volcanic activity here on earth in Iceland be directly related to that activity in galaxy M87? I personally have found numerous similarities between galactic formations and earth geometries, coastlines, continents, faults... etc

According to Newton's physics, every particle in the universe has an effect on every other particle in the universe. Why would larger systems not act in a similar manner? Can gravity really be restricted to the speed of light, given its ability to influence the very path that photons travel?

Posted by Joseph W Rowan on Tuesday, 08.24.10 @ 02:17am

Black holes draw in matter. Could this possibly be the other end, where it spits out the matter, such as a wormhole?

Posted by rav on Monday, 08.23.10 @ 08:47am

Congratulations to whoever was responsible. Very good comparison to aid in understanding events and the image. I was half expecting something specious, but their are sound likenesses in appearance and underlying activity. Well done.

Posted by Brian Armour on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 20:52pm

One of the best informative images yet.

Posted by Ted on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 20:10pm

That's an old picture. But, sorry, the world doesn't revolve around any one person.


Posted by Bill Ray on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 17:39pm

This is an active galaxy. Its "hot gas" is plasma. Its energetic particles, constitute plasma. Everything in the image is plasma emitting electromagnetic energy from radio to X-rays. To use, a volcano is a disturbing miss-use of analogy at the energy levels of galactic events. It would be more informative to note that a black hole is still a highly theoretical construct, and has never been observed. The composite color image of NGC 4486 is exquisite. Good job there guys.

Posted by J. Johnson on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 12:10pm

I think all this information coming from these observatories like the Chandra x-ray observatory and Hubble are very interesting.

Posted by thomas on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 11:19am

Great image - congratulations.

Posted by Robert D Goncalves on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 08:55am


Posted by Haposan MP on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 08:37am

Most of the pictures are terrific. I wish you insert an icon for each of these pictures to be forwarded to friends and those who interested in this.

Posted by P B SARPESHKAR on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 08:12am

It is a very good analogy, to explain the process involved.

Posted by Mark Ballington on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 07:37am

Great, awesome and I love it 10/10.

Posted by John Potgieter on Friday, 08.20.10 @ 01:38am

These jets lift up the relatively cool gas near the center of the galaxy and produce shock waves in the galaxy's atmosphere because of their supersonic speed.
I thought these jets were moving at relativistic speeds and not supersonic speeds. I am in fact sure that at one time there was even a big debate going on about the apparent superluminal nature of these jets, which has since been disproved.

Posted by Prithvi on Thursday, 08.19.10 @ 21:20pm

Wow... what else can you say? wow.

Posted by j. lackey on Thursday, 08.19.10 @ 20:45pm

About M87, in this photo we can see the horizon of the massive black hole, but what is not normal is the form of the base a tornade form and the sense of x-rays they are aspirated instead of ex-pulsed, in center many star exployed, I think two or three star in same time, we had to review our models or a new type of black hole like a worm.

Posted by PECQUERY on Thursday, 08.19.10 @ 17:19pm

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