eso0231 — Photo Release
Hot Spot Cosmic Accelerators
VLT Images Intergalactic Shock
25 November 2002
Astronomers have released a new infrared image of the jets in the radio galaxy 3C 445, an active galaxctic nucleus. This highly detailed image, taken with ESO's Very Large Telescope, shows the extremely powerful processes taking place in such objects.
The Universe is a violent place - as astronomers use increasingly sensitive means and methods to study the diverse processes out there, they become aware of the extraordinary forces acting in the space that surrounds us.
With larger telescopes and ever-more sophisticated instruments, new information is gained about remote celestial objects and their behaviour. Among the most intriguing ones are the radio galaxies which emit prodiguous amounts of energy, in the form of fast-moving particles and intense electromagnetic radiation.
One of these is known as 3C 445 ; it is located near the celestial equator within the zodiacal constellation Aquarius (The Waterman), at a distance of about 1 billion light-years. It most probably harbours a black hole at its centre, more massive than the one at the centre of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. This galaxy was first observed from Cambridge (United Kingdom) in the 1950's and was listed as radio source no. 445 in the Third Cambridge Catalogue (1959), hence the name.
Later observations revealed a strong outflow from this galaxy's active centre, visible on radio maps as two opposite plasma jets with strong synchrotron radiation () originating from rapidly moving electrons in the associated magnetic field (image "a" in ESO Press Photo eso0231).
Now, a trio of European astronomers  have used two advanced instruments, ISAAC and FORS1 on the 8.2-m VLT ANTU telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory (Chile) to obtain near-infrared images of these jets (images "b" and "c" in ESO Press Photo eso0231).
As can be clearly seen on the radio picture of 3C 445 obtained with the NRAO Very Large Array (VLA) radio facility ("a"), the plasma jets of fast particles emanating from the galaxy ram into the surrounding intergalactic medium (mostly primordial hydrogen), thereby producing two "shocks", both at a distance of approximately 1.5 million light-years from the central galaxy and with particularly strong synchrotron emission. With a total length of more than 3 million light-years, or no less than one-and-a-half times the distance from the Milky Way to the Andromeda galaxy, this structure is indeed gigantic.
The region where the jets collide with the intergalactic medium are known as " hot spots ". Superposing the intensity contours of the radio emission from the southern "hot spot" on a near-infrared J-band (wavelength 1.25 µm) VLT ISAAC image ("b") shows three distinct emitting areas; they are even better visible on the I-band (0.9 µm) FORS1 image ("c"). This emission is obviously associated with the shock front visible on the radio image.
This is one of the first times it has been possible to obtain an optical/near-IR image of synchrotron emission from such an intergalactic shock and, thanks to the sensitivity and image sharpness of the VLT, the most detailed view of its kind so far .
The central area (with the strongest emission) is where the plasma jet from the galaxy centre hits the intergalactic medium. The light from the two other "knots", some 10 - 15,000 light-years away from the central "hot spot", is also interpreted as synchrotron emission. However, in view of the large distance, the astronomers are convinced that it must be caused by electrons accelerated in secondary processes at those sites .
The new images thus confirm that electrons are being continuously accelerated in these "knots" - hence called "cosmic accelerators" - far from the galaxy and the main jets, and in nearly empty space. The exact physical circumstances of this effect are not well known and will be the subject of further investigations.
The present VLT-images of the "hot spots" near 3C 445 may not have the same public appeal as some of those beautiful images that have been produced by the same instruments during the past years. But they are not less valuable - their unusual importance is of a different kind, as they now herald the advent of fundamentally new insights into the mysteries of this class of remote and active cosmic objects.
: The new results are described in a research paper, "Particle Accelerators in the Hot Spots of Radio Galaxy 3C 445, Imaged with the VLT" by M. Almudena Prieto (ESO, Garching, Germany), Gianfranco Brunetti (Istituto di Radioastronomia del CNR, Bologna, Italy) and Karl-Heinz Mack (Istituto di Radioastronomia del CNR, Bologna, Italy; ASTRON/NFRA, Dwingeloo, The Netherlands; Radioastronomisches Institut der Universität Bonn, Germany), that recently appeared in the research journal Science (Vol. 298, pp. 193-195).
: When electrons - which are electrically charged - move through a magnetic field, they spiral along the lines of force. Electrons of high energy spiral very rapidly, at speeds near the speed of light. Under such conditions, the electrons emit highly polarized electromagnetic radiation. The intensity of this radiation is related to the strength of the magnetic field and the number and energy distribution of the electrons caught in this field. Many cosmic radio sources have been found to emit synchrotron radiation - one of the best examples is the famous Crab Nebula.