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Inside a celestial super-volcano


The main image shows radio emissions (in red-orange) and X-ray emissions (in blue) from the galaxy M87. The inset image, by Omar Ragnarsson, shows the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland.

A "super-volcano" is erupting out in the Virgo Cluster, in the form of a supermassive black hole churning away at the center of the galaxy M87. And although it looks nothing like an earthly volcano, there's a similarity in the workings of the celestial and earthly eruptions.

That similarity is the focus of an image advisory issued last week by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory Center. NASA's Chandra spacecraft looks at the universe in X-ray wavelengths, which are associated with the violent outbursts from black holes, smashing galaxies and supernovae. Its image of M87, which is about 50 million light-years away in the Virgo Cluster, shows a tower of hot gas glowing in X-ray light (depicted in blue in the image above).

That gas should be falling inward toward the black hole as it cools. But radio observations from the Very Large Array (shown in red-orange) suggest that jets of energetic particles produced in the tumult surrounding the black hole are pushing outward, producing shock waves and dragging up the relatively cool gas.

This annotated image explains the process - but it turns out that an even better way to show what's going on is to use a video of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano's eruption in Iceland. Beginning about 18 seconds into the video, you can see pockets of hot gas blasting out from the volcano, followed by belches of dark ash.

Close-up footage of the crater at Eyjafjallajökull. You can see red glowing lava as well as volcanic bombs flying through the air. If you watch carefully you can even see the shockwaves of the eruptions in the ash cloud.

It's just such a phenomenon that is behind the towers of gas rising from M87. Which goes to show that physics is physics, whether you're in Iceland or the Virgo Cluster.

More about M87 and other black holes:

The Chandra imagery is based on 159 hours of observations in 2002 and 2005. Findings are to be reported in two papers due to appear in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. First authors of the papers are Evan Million and Norbert Werner, both of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University. Volcano video from YouTube. Tip o' the Log to Discovery News' Nicole Gugliucci, who goes into the explanation in greater depth.