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Flamethrowing Black Holes Leave Destruction in Their Wake

If you’re looking for something to be terrified about and the idea of getting swallowed into a black hole isn’t doing it for you, imagine getting blasted into oblivion by what comes out of one. The image above isn’t a sci-fi illustration—it’s an actual X-ray image of the 3C321 system, which is made up of two galaxies about 1.4 billion light years away. And as you can plainly see, one of the galaxies is* blasting the other into kingdom come. Each has a supermassive black hole at galactic center, but only one of those black holes is shooting out massive, galaxy-wide torrents of gamma-ray radiation and God only knows what else.

Scientists aren’t really sure why black holes throw fire like this, but it’s not an unheard-of phenomenon—and, for all the destruction it causes, it’s awfully pretty to look at. The science media has recently noticed the gorgeous plume of celestial fire streaking out from the black hole at the center of IC5063, and has used it to illustrate a series of articles about the phenomenon. I’ll do the same, of course, while hoping that any inhabited planets in the path of this are either unoccupied or well-insulated.

IC5063. Image: NASA.

IC5063. Image: NASA.

Do we need to worry about these blasts ourselves? Doubtful. The Milky Way isn’t part of a close-knit galaxy system, and the supermassive black hole at the center of our own galaxy seems to be behaving itself reasonably well for now. But in terms of sheer scale, few cosmic events are as spectacular—or as destructive—as the glowing burst of an explosive black hole.

* Well, “is” might be a stretch. What we’re looking at technically happened 1.4 billion years ago, so it might be all rainbows and butterflies by now. 

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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