Galaxy IC 5063

  • 156 light years away from Earth

  • Seyfert Galaxy

Dark Rays

This Hubble Space Telescope image of the heart of nearby active galaxy IC 5063 reveals a mixture of bright rays and dark shadows coming from the blazing core, home of a supermassive black hole. Astronomers suggest that a ring of dusty material surrounding the black hole may be casting its shadow into space. According to their scenario, this interplay of light and shadow may occur when light blasted by the monster black hole strikes the dust ring, which is buried deep inside the core. Light streams through gaps in the ring, creating the brilliant cone-shaped rays. However, denser patches in the disk block some of the light, casting long, dark shadows through the galaxy. This phenomenon is similar to sunlight piercing our Earthly clouds at sunset, creating a mixture of bright rays and dark shadows formed by beams of light scattered by the atmosphere. However, the bright rays and dark shadows appearing in IC 5063 are happening on a vastly larger scale, shooting across at least 36,000 light-years. The observations were taken on March 7 and Nov. 25, 2019 by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys.

The strange features were originally spotted in December 2019 by amateur space image processor Judy Schmidt. She was reprocessing raw data from new Hubble Space Telescope observations into images, obtained in 2018 and 2019. In the original images, there was no sign of the cone-shaped features. But Schmidt spotted something awry straight away.

This illustration depicts one possible explanation for the mysterious bright rays and dark shadows observed emanating from the blazingly bright center of nearby active galaxy IC 5063. In this scenario, a dusty disk surrounding the monster black hole is casting its shadow into space, which is interspersed with bright rays that are leaking through gaps in the disk. The shadows and rays extend from both sides of the disk, seen edge-on in this view. The black hole, which is hidden inside the disk, is surrounded by superheated infalling gas the source of the bright core. The optical effect is similar to beams of sunlight shining though scattered clouds near sunset. As seen from Earth, the disk is perpendicular to powerful high-speed jets of plasma that shoot out of the black hole and do not smash into the disk.

Crepuscular Rays

This interplay of light and shadow is similar to the bright rays and dark shadows stretching across nearby active galaxy IC 5063. In that case, a monster black hole in the galaxy's core is producing a gusher of light from superheated infalling gas. Most of the light is penetrating the dust ring encircling the black hole, creating the bright rays. However, some light hits dense patches in the ring, casting the ring's shadow into space.

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