The focus of this new image share from NASA — a photo composite featuring imagery captured by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico — is Hercules A.
The distant galaxy, also known as 3C 348, is the bright spot right in the middle of the below image. Those long, gorgeous trails of red are plasma jets that span roughly 1.5 million light-years of distance. They’re invisible to the naked eye, but we see them here in beautiful shades of red, pink, and purple thanks to the VLA.
As for the cause of these enormous plasma jets, look no further than the massive black hole that sits at the center of 3C 348.
It’s an elliptical galaxy that’s roughly 1,000 times larger than our own Milky Way. Same goes for the black hole the galaxy formed around; it’s also about 1,000 times larger than the one at the center of our Milky Way, at around 2.5 billion solar mass. (Many galaxies are believed to have formed around supermassive black holes.)
“Emitting nearly a billion times more power in radio wavelengths than our Sun, the galaxy is one of the brightest extragalactic radio sources in the entire sky,” the VLA’s website says of 3C 348.
The plasma jets move through space at close to the speed of light. Hubble’s site also points out that the bulbous, “ring-like structures” at the end of each jet suggests the distant galaxy’s black hole has sent them hurtling outwards into space more than once.
Always remember when you’re looking at photos like these that they’re actually snapshots from the distant past. The Hubble team captured this particular image in 2012, but 3C 348 is an estimated 2 billion light-years away. That means, roughly speaking, a photo taken today is capturing a scene from 2 billion years ago.
It’s important to maintain perspective when we’re peering at pictures of space. This single scene that you’re probably looking at on a smartphone or tablet covers an inconceivable stretch of distance. And even though the photo itself was snapped almost a decade ago, the scene that’s pictured played out around 2 billion years ago, at a time when Earth was still bouncing back from a mass extinction event that significantly predates our history as a species.