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Supermassive black hole resides inside a supermassive galaxy

This wide-field image of the galaxy M87 was taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. The top inset shows a close-up of two shockwaves, created by a jet emanating from the galaxy’s supermassive black hole. The Event Horizon Telescope recently took a close-up image of the silhouette of that black hole, show in the second inset. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

The eyes of the world turned to Messier 87 earlier this month when scientists released the first ever image of a black hole. And this image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope shows more about the giant galaxy in which the now-famous black hole resides.

The imaged black hole was truly gargantuan, with a mass equivalent to 6.5 billion times that of our Sun. And the galaxy surrounding it, Messier 87, is equally huge. Known as a supergiant elliptical galaxy, it is one of the most massive galaxies in the universe and hosts a large number of globular clusters.

The image captured by Spitzer shows the galaxy in infrared, as opposed to the radio wavelengths used to capture the black hole image. The infrared light coming from the galaxy at wavelengths of 3.6 and 4.5 microns is shown in blue and green, which is what marks the stars in the image. The areas of red are dust features which glow with a wavelength of 8.0 microns.

The hazy “puff” in the middle of the the Spitzer image is the center of the galaxy where the supermassive black hole resides. If you look closely, you can see two orange plumes emanating from this center point. These are jets of high-energy material which are rocketed out into space when particles spinning around the black hole impact the surrounding gas, creating a shockwave of infrared light.

It is actually the shockwave that Spitzer detected, more than the jets themselves. The shockwaves are two different shapes because of their positions relative to Earth. The shockwave on the right looks larger and brighter because it is heading almost straight towards us, and it is even brighter because it is traveling at nearly light speed. The second shockwave on the left is smaller and dimmer because it is moving away from us.

For more images of the incredible Messier 87 galaxy and the dramatic jets given off by black holes, visit NASA’s site.

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