Black Holes: Centaurus A

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Centaurus A Interactive

Long, wavy line is puffy at ends and slim at center
Small, central horizontal line with dot at center
Dark wavy line of dust at center
Long line emanating from center, semicircle at right
Wavy, dark line is bisected by another, lighter line
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Centaurus A’s central, active supermassive black hole launches opposing jets that stretch 40,000 light-years from end to end.

Infrared light highlights the bright area around the supermassive black hole and colder dust where stars are forming.

The wavy dust band in Centaurus A indicates two galaxies are merging, but the dust blocks the black hole in visible light.

In X-ray light, we can spot one narrow jet and see another that ends in a semi-circular shockwave.

By compiling many types of light into one image, we can see the galaxy, and the black hole and its jets.


A Story Of Black Holes: Centaurus A

Studying a nearby supermassive black hole in detail.

Not even a ray of light can escape a black hole. A black hole is a region of space packed with so much mass that its own gravity prevents anything from breaking away. Although we can’t see a black hole, telescopes can observe the material around it. Matter swirling around a black hole, including gas and dust, heats up and emits radiation that can be detected. In some cases, the matter will interact with the black hole to create opposing jets, which can span thousands of light-years into the surrounding space.

Centaurus A’s warped shape is the result of a merger between two galaxies that began more than 100 million years ago. As the two galaxies’ cold gas and dust combined into a giant elliptical galaxy, new stars began forming. It also has a central supermassive black hole that is extremely active and sends out jets of particles in opposite directions. The ends of these jets appear fluffy in the radio view, because they have run into particles in the surrounding space that slow their outward progress.

Since Centaurus A is relatively close to Earth, it has been studied for more than 170 years with telescopes that observe light across the electromagnetic spectrum. These studies have significantly added to what we know about active supermassive black holes. Researchers also use Centaurus A to model galaxies with jets and active supermassive black holes in the distant universe.

Quick Facts: Centaurus A

Also known as: NGC 5128

Distance from Earth: 13 million light-years

Size: 40,000 light-years from jet to jet; the galaxy itself is 58,000 light-years in diameter

Type of object: Giant elliptical galaxy with an active supermassive black hole

Location in the sky: Centaurus Constellation

Did you know: Centaurus A was first identified in 1826, but it wasn’t until 1949 when it became really interesting: Radio observations revealed that it is a very bright source, and later observations revealed it is made up of two galaxies that are merging.

Explore More About Black Holes

Find out more with these additional resources from NASA’s Universe of Learning

Credits: Centaurus A

Radio image from the Very Large Array: NRAO, AUI, NSF, Univ. Hertfordshire, M. Hardcastle

Infrared image from the Spitzer Space Telescope: NASA, JPL-Caltech, J. Keene (SSC, Caltech)

Visible light image courtesy of Rolf Olsen

X-ray light image from the Chandra X-ray Observatory: NASA, CXC, SAO

Multi-wavelength image (radio, infrared, visible, X-ray): NRAO, AUI, NSF, Univ. Hertfordshire, M. Hardcastle; NASA, JPL-Caltech; Rolf Olsen; NASA, CXC, SAO

Subject-matter expertise provided by Dr. Bradford Snios

Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach