The galaxy Centaurus A (Cen A) shines bright in this image combining data from multiple observatories. In the center of this galaxy is a supermassive black hole feeding off the gas and dust encircling it, and large jets of high-energy particles and other material spewing out. The jet shown at the upper left of this image extends for about 13,000 light-years away from the black hole. Also visible is a dust lane, wrapping around the middle of the galaxy, which may have resulted from a collision with a smaller galaxy millions of years ago.
Colors in this image have been chosen to reflect the sources of data. Blue shows X-ray light captured by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, orange represents X-rays detected by NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) satellite, and optical light seen by the European Southern Observatory in Chile is colored white and gray.
Cen A has been studied extensively since the launch of Chandra in 1999. With IXPE, which launched in 2021, scientists can understand the mysteries of this object in a new way. IXPE is specialized to look at a property of X-ray light called polarization, which relates to the organization of electromagnetic waves. This specialized measurement is helping scientists study how particles become accelerated to high energies and speeds — nearly the speed of light — at extreme cosmic objects like this one.
At Cen A, researchers using IXPE seek to understand what causes the X-ray emission in the jets. So far, scientists have not detected X-ray polarization at Cen A, indicating that particles much heavier than electrons, such as protons, are not producing the X-rays. More insights are to come as scientists analyze the data.
Cen A is found 12 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Centaurus and represents the fifth brightest galaxy in the sky.
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Chandra X-ray Center controls science operations from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and flight operations from Burlington, Massachusetts.
This composite image depicts a large galaxy with a brilliant glowing core, encircled by a ring of gas and dust. This featured galaxy, Centaurus A, is set against a dark background dotted with distant galaxies and stars.
Centaurus A has a glowing, pale yellow circle at its center. White and pale pink light emanates from this core, illuminating the dark ring of gas and dust which encircles it. The dark, veiny ring, known as a dust lane, is depicted on its side, tilted on an angle, lower at our left and higher on our right.
Blasting away from the center of the galaxy, toward our upper left, is a large jet of high-energy particles 13,000 light-years long. The jet resembles a widening beam of pale blue light flecked with white dots.
Opposite the jet, to our lower right of the tilted dust lane, is a translucent blue shape resembling a giant bubble. This X-ray light was captured by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Faint hints of translucent blue light can be found throughout the galaxy, intermingled with the pale pink light around the core, and above the dust lane at our upper left. The pale pink represents X-ray light captured by IXPE.