In 1916, Albert Einstein put the finishing touches on his Theory of General Relativity, a journey that began in 1905 with his attempts to reconcile Newton’s own theories of gravitation with the laws of electromagnetism. Once complete, Einstein’s theory provided a unified description of gravity as a geometric property of the cosmos, where massive objects alter the curvature of spacetime, affecting everything around them.
What’s more, Einstein’s field equations predicted the existence of black holes, objects so massive that even light cannot escape their surfaces. GR also predicts that black holes will bend light in their vicinity, an effect that can be used by astronomers to observe more distant objects. Relying on this technique, an international team of scientists made an unprecedented feat by observing light caused by an X-ray flare that took place behind a black hole.
The core of the Milky Way Galaxy (aka. Galactic Center), the region around which the rest of the galaxy revolves, is a strange and mysterious place. It is here that the Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) that powers the compact radio source known as Sagittarius A* is located. It is also the most compact region in the galaxy, with an estimated 10 million stars within 3.26 light-years of the Galactic Center.
X-ray astronomy helps scientists study neutron stars, binary star systems, and supernova remnants, and even helps detect black holes. But even if human eyes had the ability to see X-rays, we couldn’t just look up at the night sky and see these amazing objects since Earth’s atmosphere absorbs and blocks X-rays. So, thank goodness for space telescopes! And the newest X-ray instrument in space has just produced a breathtaking view of the Universe, and is the deepest X-ray view of the sky we’ve ever seen.
Hundreds of millions of light years away, a supermassive black hole sits in the center of a galaxy cluster named Ophiuchus. Though black holes are renowned for sucking in surrounding material, they sometimes expel material in jets. This black hole is the site of an almost unimaginably powerful explosion, created when an enormous amount of material was expelled.
Astronomers have found a supermassive black hole (SMBH) with an unusually regular feeding schedule. The behemoth is an active galactic nucleus (AGN) at the heart of the Seyfert 2 galaxy GSN 069. The AGN is about 250 million light years from Earth, and contains about 400,000 times the mass of the Sun.
A rogue star is one that has escaped the gravitational pull of its home galaxy. These stars drift through intergalactic space, and so are sometimes called intergalactic stars. Sometimes, when a rogue star is ejected from its galaxy, it drags its binary pair along for the ride.
In the coming years, thousands of satellites, several next-generation space telescopes and even a few space habitats are expected to be launched into orbit. Beyond Earth, multiple missions are planned to be sent to the lunar surface, to Mars, and beyond. As humanity’s presence in space increases, the volume of data that is regularly being back sent to Earth is reaching the limits of what radio communications can handle.
For this reason, NASA and other space agencies are looking for new methods for sending information back and forth across space. Already, optical communications (which rely on lasers to encode and transmit information) are being developed, but other more radical concepts are also being investigating. These include X-ray communications, which NASA is gearing up to test in space using their XCOM technology demonstrator.
It’s relatively easy for galaxies to make stars. Start out with a bunch of random blobs of gas and dust. Typically those blobs will be pretty warm. To turn them into stars, you have to cool them off. By dumping all their heat in the form of radiation, they can compress. Dump more heat, compress more. Repeat for a million years or so.
Eventually pieces of the gas cloud shrink and shrink, compressing themselves into a tight little knots. If the densities inside those knots get high enough, they trigger nuclear fusion and voila: stars are born.
A team of researchers in the UK have observed matter falling into a black hole at 30% the speed of light. This is much faster than anything previously observed. The high velocity is a result of misaligned discs of material rotating around the black hole.
It’s not exactly an organ donor, but a star in the direction of the hyper-populated core of the Milky Way donating some of its mass to a dormant neighbor. The result? The dormant neighbor sprung back to life with an X-ray burst captured by the ESA‘s INTEGRAL (INTErnational Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory) space observatory.
“INTEGRAL caught a unique moment in the birth of a rare binary system” – Enrico Bozzo, University of Geneva.
The neighbors have likely been paired together for billions of years, which is not in itself noteworthy: stars often live in binary pairs. But the pair spotted by INTEGRAL on August 13th 2017 is very unusual. The donor star is a red giant, and the recipient is a neutron star. So far, astronomers only know of 10 of these pairs, called ‘symbiotic X-ray binaries’.
To understand what’s happening between these neighbors, we have to look at stellar evolution.
The donor star is in its red giant phase. That’s when a star in the same mass range as our star reaches the later stage of its life. As its mass is depleted, gravity can’t hold the star together in the same way it has for the early part of its life. The star expands outwards by millions of kilometers. As it does so, it sheds stellar material from its outer layers in a solar wind that travels several hundreds of km/sec.
Its neighbor is in a different state. It’s a star that had an initial mass of about 25 to 30 times the Sun. When a star this big approaches the end of its life, it suffers a different fate. Stars this large live fast, and burn through their fuel quickly. Then, they explode as supernovae, in this case leaving a corpse behind. In the binary system captured by INTEGRAL, the corpse is a spinning neutron star with a magnetic field.
Neutron stars are dense. In fact, they’re some of the densest stellar objects we know of, packing as much mass as one-and-a-half of our Suns into an object that’s only about 10 km across.
When the red giant’s stellar wind met the neutron star, the neutron star slowed its rate of spin, and burst into life, emitting high-energy x-rays.
“INTEGRAL caught a unique moment in the birth of a rare binary system,” says Enrico Bozzo from University of Geneva and lead author of the paper that describes the discovery. “The red giant released a sufficiently dense slow wind to feed its neutron star companion, giving rise to high-energy emission from the dead stellar core for the first time.”
After INTEGRAL spotted the x-ray burst from the binary, other observations quickly followed. The ESA’s XMM Newton and NASA’s NuSTAR and Swift space telescopes got to work, along with ground-based telescopes. These observations confirmed what initial observations showed: this is a very peculiar pair of stars.
“…we believe we saw the X-rays turning on for the first time.” – Erik Kuulkers, ESA INTEGRAL Project Scientist.
The neutron star spins very slowly, taking about 2 hours to revolve, which is remarkable since other neutron stars can spin many times per second. The magnetic field of the neutron star was also much stronger than expected. But the magnetic field around a neutron star is thought to weaken over time, making this a relatively young neutron star. And a red giant is old, so this is a very odd pairing of old red giant with young neutron star.
One possible explanation is that the neutron star didn’t form from a supernova, but from a white dwarf. In that scenario, the white dwarf would’ve collapsed into a neutron star after a very long period of feeding on material from the red giant. That would explain the disparity in ages of the two stars in the system.
“These objects are puzzling,” says Enrico. “It might be that either the neutron star magnetic field does not decay substantially with time after all, or the neutron star actually formed later in the history of the binary system. That would mean it collapsed from a white dwarf into a neutron star as a result of feeding off the red giant over a long time, rather than becoming a neutron star as a result of a more traditional supernova explosion of a short-lived massive star.”
The next question is how long will this process go on? Is it short-lived, or the beginning of a long-term relationship?
“We haven’t seen this object before in the past 15 years of our observations with INTEGRAL, so we believe we saw the X-rays turning on for the first time,” says Erik Kuulkers, ESA’s INTEGRAL project scientist. “We’ll continue to watch how it behaves in case it is just a long ‘burp’ of winds, but so far we haven’t seen any significant changes.”
The INTEGRAL space observatory was launched in 2002 to study some of the most energetic phenomena in the universe. It focuses on things like black holes, neutron stars, active galactic nuclei and supernovae. INTEGRAL is a European Space Agency mission in cooperation with the United States and Russia. Its projected end date is December, 2018.