Hundreds of millions of years followed before matter started to collect into vast clouds, coalesce and collapse, under its own weight, into the first stars. These first stars were huge, hot and powerful. They consumed vast amounts of material and therefore only shined for a few hundred million years. When the non-stop internal nuclear explosion that powers a star has converted all of its hydrogen into helium, the star inflates and begins a new round of energy release by converting its helium into even heavier elements. Over time, the nuclear furnace inside a star will only contain iron, and because iron cannot be used as a nuclear fuel, the star will stop releasing enough energy to prevent it from beginning to rapidly collapse again. If a star contains less that two or three times as much material as our Sun, then the force of it's sudden inward rush will rip it apart in an titanic explosion called a supernova. The explosion exposes the star's core- a dense, planet sized ball of material made only of atomic neutrons- and it slowly begins to cool.
If the star contains more than three times as much material as our Sun, then it, too, will explode when it runs out of fuel. But, following this explosion the star's core continues to shrink until it becomes fantastically dense- a thimble full could weigh more than a planet! This produces intense gravity- so strong that anything coming near is pulled inward. Nothing escapes, not even light. Thus, the star becomes a practically invisible, black, bottomless pit and is called a black hole.
The first stars to form after the Big Bang became massive black holes and many attracted an orbiting disk of material. Most astronomers are now convinced that these original super-sized black holes were the seeds around which galaxies formed because virtually all galaxies are now known to harbor a black hole of enormous proportions at their centers- including our own Milky Way!
Over time, black holes, especially those at the center of galaxies, attract an orbiting cloud of gas, dust and more than a few stars, too. Eventually, some of this matter will stray too close and will be pulled toward the black hole. As the material grows closer, it gains incredible speed so that some of it is able to avoid being sucked onto the black hole's surface. The portion that escapes, however, is flung far into outer space as a powerful jet of material that is thousands of light-years in length. Most galaxies do not have active jets at any given moment, but all galaxies have jets at one time or another.
The picture is of a galaxy located 45 million light years from your home, in the constellation named Fornax. Fornax is located in the southern part of the sky and cannot be easily seen from the northern hemisphere. Therefore, to create this image, I used both my telescope in New Mexico and one located near Melbourne, Australia.
This galaxy has four jets emanating from its central black hole. These jets were discovered, optically, back in 1975 with the then new 4-meter reflector at Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile. Two of those jets can be seen in this image, the other two, located approximately 35 or so degrees from these, were lost in the sky glow noise of this cumulative 20 hour exposure.
Also noticeable is one of this galaxy's two small companions- a relatively diminutive elliptical galaxy that orbits about 42,000 light-years from the larger galaxy's center. Despite the great distance that separates the two, the smaller galaxy's presence is being felt by the larger spiral as evidenced by the disruption of its closer spiral arm. Over time, the small galaxy will merge into the larger.