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Here’s why some supermassive black holes blaze so brightly

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For the first time, astronomers have observed how certain supermassive black holes launch jets of high-energy particles into space — and the process is shocking.

Shock waves propagating along the jet of one such blazar contort magnetic fields that accelerate escaping particles to nearly the speed of light, astronomers report November 23 in Nature. Studying such extreme acceleration can help probe fundamental physics questions that can’t be studied any other way.

Blazars are active black holes that shoot jets of high-energy particles toward Earth, making them appear as bright spots from millions or even billions of light-years away (SN: 7/14/15). Astronomers knew that the jets’ extreme speeds and tight columnated beams had something to do with the shape of magnetic fields around black holes, but the details were fuzzy.

Enter the Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE, an orbiting telescope launched in December 2021. Its mission is to measure X-ray polarization, or how X-ray light is oriented as it travels through space. While previous blazar…

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