MeerKAT’s Stunning Image Reveals Cosmic Threads, Ribbons and Rings

Media Release

A new study using the MeerKAT radio telescope has produced a striking image showing a combination of cosmic features never before seen, revealing unexpected details of the inner workings of enormous radio galaxies.

At the center of the giant elliptical galaxy, IC 4296 is a rotating black hole with a mass of a billion suns. The energy released by matter falling onto the black hole generates two opposing radio jets containing magnetic fields and relativistic electrons. After traveling through intergalactic space at the speed of light for 160 million years, the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory’s MeerKAT telescope detected these radio waves.  SARAO’s MeerKAT telescope is located in the Karoo region of the Northern Cape province of South Africa.

The Fanaroff-Riley Type I radio galaxy IC 4296 dominates this spectacular vista, wider than the full moon in the sky. MeerKAT radio data are represented in red/orange hues in this composite view. The visible light image from the SuperCOSMOS Sky Survey shows the central giant elliptical galaxy, as well as numerous unrelated galaxies and foreground stars in the Milky Way. Credit: SARAO, SSS, S. Dagnello and W. Cotton (NRAO/AUI/NSF). Adapted from J. Condon et al., “Threads, Ribbons, and Rings in the Radio Galaxy IC 4296” (The Astrophysical Journal, in press).

The bright spines of the initially straight jets become unstable just outside the galaxy, where some of the electrons escape creating several faint radio “threads” below IC 4296. Between the bright jets and the outer lobes are smooth “ribbons” filling channels excavated from the surrounding gas by defunct jets from an earlier period of activity. Intergalactic gas eventually stops the ribbons nearly a million light-years from the central galaxy (a distance equal to 10 times the diameter of our Milky Way home galaxy), and form the “smoke rings” visible in the left radio lobe.

Jim Condon of the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and lead author of the study just accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal that summarizes this research done by a US-South African team, says that “only MeerKAT’s unique combination of sensitivity, angular resolution, and dynamic range allowed the discovery of these threads, ribbons, and rings” in this previously well-studied galaxy.

The anonymous reviewer of the manuscript submitted for publication noted as follows: “it is clear that new results like this from MeerKAT and other SKA pathfinders are set to overhaul our understanding of extragalactic radio sources”.

You can download a Hi-Res version of the image here. For more information, please contact Dr. Fernando Camilo, SARAO Chief Scientist Email: fernando@ska.ac.za. 

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