Categories: Black Holes

The Shrinking Doughnut Around a Black Hole


Homer Simpson would be sad: recent observations of the binary system of a black hole and its companion star have shown the retreat of the doughnut-shaped accretion disk around the black hole. This shrinking ‘doughnut’ was seen in observations of the binary system GX 339-4, a system composed of a star similar in mass to the Sun, and a black hole of ten solar masses.

As the black hole feeds on gas flowing out from the orbiting star, the change in flow of the gas produces a varying size in the disk of matter that piles up around the black hole in a torus shape. For the first time, the changes in the size of this disk have been measured, showing just how much smaller the doughnut becomes.

GX-339-4 lies 26,000 light-years away in the constellation Ara. Every 1.7 days in the system, a star orbits around the more massive black hole. This system, and others like it, show periodic flares of X-ray activity when gas that is being stolen from the star by the black hole gets heated up in the accretion disk that piles up around the black hole. Over the last seven years, the system has had four energetic outbursts in the last seven years, making it a quite active black hole/stellar binary system.

The material falling into the hole forms jets of highly energized photons and gas, one of which is pointed in the direction of the Earth. It is these jets that a team of international astronomers observed using the Suzaku X-ray observatory, operated jointly by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and NASA, and NASA’s X-ray Timing Explorer satellite. The results of their observations were published in the Dec. 10 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Though the system was faint when they took their measurements with the telescopes, it was producing steady jets of X-rays. The team was looking for the signature of X-ray spectral lines produced by the fluorescence of iron atoms in the disk. The strong gravity of the black hole shifts the energy of the X-rays produced by the iron, leaving a characteristic spectral line. By measuring these spectral lines, they were able to determine with rather high confidence the size of the shrinking disk.

Here’s how the shrinking occurs: the part of the disk that is closer to the black hole is denser when there is more gas flowing out from the star that accompanies it. But when this flow is reduced, the inner part of the disk heats up and evaporates. During the brightest periods of the black hole’s output, the disk was calculated to be within about 30 km (20 miles) of the black hole’s event horizon, while during lower periods of luminosity the disk retreats to greater than 27 times further, or to 1,000 km (600 miles) from the edge of the black hole.

This has an important implication in the study of how black holes form their jets; even though the accretion disk evaporates close to the black hole, these jets remain at a steady output.

John Tomsick of the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley said in a NASA press-release, “This doesn’t tell us how jets form, but it does tell us that jets can be launched even when the high-density accretion flow is far from the black hole. This means that the low-density accretion flow is the most essential ingredient for the formation of a steady jet in a black hole system.”

Read the pre-print version of the teams’ letter. If you want more information on how the X-rays from the disks around black holes can help determine their shape and spin, check out an article from Universe Today from 2003, Iron Can Help Determine if a Black Hole is Spinning.

Source: NASA/Suzaku press release

Nicholos Wethington

I started writing for Universe Today in September 2007, and have loved every second of it since! Astronomy and science are fascinating for me to learn and write about, and it makes me happy to share my passion for science with others. In addition to the science writing, I'm a full-time bicycle mechanic and the two balance nicely, as I get to work with my hands for part of the day, and my head the other part (some of the topics are a stretch for me to wrap my head around, too!).

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