600 million light years away, massive plasma jets erupt from black holes as galactic clusters crash into one another – and we know this because researchers from universities around the world teamed up to apply supercomputing and radio telescopes, studying the far reaches of outer space.
Based in the Northern Cape of South Africa, the MeerKAT radio telescope is, itself, a precursor to the massive Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, slated to be the largest in the world when it launches. MeerKAT will be part of the SKA’s mid-frequency component, but for now, it’s engaged in its own research – for instance, studying the enormous magnetic fields that surround galactic clusters.
One such cluster is Abell 3376, itself abnormally large as it formed from the collision of two constituent sub-clusters. MeerKAT turned its eye to Abell 3376 to study its magnetic fields, which have long proved mysterious for astrophysicists. “It is generally difficult to directly examine the structure of intracluster magnetic fields,” said Tsutomu Takeuchi, one of the researchers and an astrophysicist at Nagoya University in Japan.
The images MeerKAT returned showed an unexpected feature of the cluster: a T shape, hundreds of thousands of light years long, formed by plasma jets spewing from a supermassive black hole. The researchers dug in more, working with additional data from the European Space Agency to identify where, exactly, the bend in the plasma jets began. “This told us that the plasma jets from MRC 0600-399 were interacting with something in the heated gas, called the intracluster medium, that exists between the galaxies within Abell 3376,” Takeuchi said.
To understand the causes behind the bizarre bend, the researchers fed this data into magnetohydrodynamic supercomputer simulations, hosting the work on the ATERUI II supercomputer at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. ATERUI II, a Cray XC50, delivers 2.09 Linpack petaflops, placing it 214th on the most recent Top500 list.
Using the simulations, the researchers found that the plasma jets were bending due to interaction with the magnetic fields at the borders of the subclusters, compressing them and shaping them into the distinctive T formation.
“New facilities like the SKA are expected to reveal the roles and origins of cosmic magnetism and even to help us understand how the universe evolved,” Takeuchi said. “Our study is a good example of the power of radio observation, one of the last frontiers in astronomy.”
The research was published as “Jets from MRC 0600-399 bent by magnetic fields in the cluster Abell 3376” in the May 2021 issue of Nature. To read the paper, click here.