Black hole simulation solves a mystery about their accretion disks

Credit: ESA/Hubble, ESO, M. Kornmesser

Black holes are one of the most awesome and mysterious forces in the Universe. Originally predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, these points in spacetime are formed when massive stars undergo gravitational collapse at the end of their lives. Despite decades of study and observation, there is still much we don’t know about this phenomenon.

For example, scientists are still largely in the dark about how the matter that falls into orbit around a black hole and is gradually fed onto it (accretion disks) behave. Thanks to a recent study, where an international team of researchers conducted the most detailed simulations of a black hole to date, a number of theoretical predictions regarding accretion disks have finally been validated.

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Astronomy Without A Telescope – Blazar Jets


Polar jets are often found around objects with spinning accretion disks – anything from newly forming stars to ageing neutron stars. And some of the most powerful polar jets arise from accretion disks around black holes, be they of stellar or supermassive size. In the latter case, jets emerging from active galaxies such as quasars, with their jets roughly orientated towards Earth, are called blazars.

The physics underlying the production of polar jets at any scale is not completely understood. It is likely that twisting magnetic lines of force, generated within a spinning accretion disk, channel plasma from the compressed centre of the accretion disk into the narrow jets we observe. But exactly what energy transfer process gives the jet material the escape velocity required to be thrown clear is still subject to debate.

In the extreme cases of black hole accretion disks, jet material acquires escape velocities close to the speed of light – which is needed if the material is to escape from the vicinity of a black hole. Polar jets thrown out at such speeds are usually called relativistic jets.

Relativistic jets from blazars broadcast energetically across the electromagnetic spectrum – where ground based radio telescopes can pick up their low frequency radiation, while space-based telescopes, like Fermi or Chandra, can pick up high frequency radiation. As you can see from the lead image of this story, Hubble can pick up optical light from one of M87‘s jets – although ground-based optical observations of a ‘curious straight ray’ from M87 were recorded as early as 1918.

Polar jets are thought to be shaped (collimated) by twisting magnetic lines of force. The driving force that pushes the jets out may be magnetic and/or intense radiation pressure, but no-one is really sure at this stage. Credit: NASA.

A recent review of high resolution data obtained from Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) – involving integrating data inputs from geographically distant radio telescope dishes into a giant virtual telescope array – is providing a bit more insight (although only a bit) into the structure and dynamics of jets from active galaxies.

The radiation from such jets is largely non-thermal (i.e. not a direct result of the temperature of the jet material). Radio emission probably results from synchrotron effects – where electrons spun rapidly within a magnetic field emit radiation across the whole electromagnetic spectrum, but generally with a peak in radio wavelengths. The inverse Compton effect, where a photon collision with a rapidly moving particle imparts more energy and hence a higher frequency to that photon, may also contribute to the higher frequency radiation.

Anyhow, VLBI observations suggest that blazar jets form within a distance of between 10 or 100 times the radius of the supermassive black hole – and whatever forces work to accelerate them to relativistic velocities may only operate over the distance of 1000 times that radius. The jets may then beam out over light year distances, as a result of that initial momentum push.

Shock fronts can be found near the base of the jets, which may represent points at which magnetically driven flow (Poynting flux) fades to kinetic mass flow – although magnetohydrodynamic forces continue operating to keep the jet collimated (i.e. contained within a narrow beam) over light year distances.

Left: A Xray/radio/optical composite photo of Centaurus A - also not technically a blazar because its jets don't align with the Earth. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al.; Submillimeter: MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al.; Optical: ESO/WFI. Right: A composite image showing the radio glow from Centaurus A compared with that of the full Moon. The foreground antennas are CSIRO's Australia Telescope Compact Array, which gathered the data for this image.

That was about as much as I managed to glean from this interesting, though at times jargon-dense, paper.

Further reading: Lobanov, A. Physical properties of blazar jets from VLBI observations.

Caught in the Act! Merging Galaxies Create a Binary Quasar

Excellent teamwork by astronomers working in two different wavebands – x-ray and optical – has led to the discovery of a binary quasar being created by a pair of merging galaxies.

“This is really the first case in which you see two separate galaxies, both with quasars, that are clearly interacting,” says Carnegie astronomer John Mulchaey who made observations crucial to understanding the galaxy merger.

“The model verifies the merger origin for this binary quasar system,” Thomas Cox, now a fellow at the Carnegie Observatories, says, referring to computer simulations of the merging galaxies he produced. When Cox’s model galaxies merged, they showed features remarkably similar to what Mulchaey observed in the Magellan images. “It also hints that this kind of galaxy interaction is a key component of the growth of black holes and production of quasars throughout our universe,” Cox added.

“Just because you see two galaxies that are close to each other in the sky doesn’t mean they are merging,” says Mulchaey. “But from the Magellan images we can actually see tidal tails, one from each galaxy, which suggests that the galaxies are in fact interacting and are in the process of merging.”

As Universe Today readers know, quasars are the extremely bright centers of galaxies surrounding supermassive black holes, and binary quasars are pairs of quasars bound together by the mutual gravitation of the two host galaxies’ nuclei. Binary quasars, like other quasars, are thought to be the product of galaxy mergers. Until now, however, binary quasars have not been seen in galaxies that are unambiguously in the act of merging. But images of a new binary quasar from the Carnegie Institution’s Magellan telescope in Chile show two distinct galaxies with tails produced by tidal forces from their mutual gravitational attraction.

Supermassive black holes are to be found in the nuclei of most, if not all, large galaxies, such as our galaxy the Milky Way. Because galaxies regularly interact and merge, astronomers have concluded that binary supermassive black holes have been common in the Universe, especially during its early history (when galaxy mergers were far more common). Supermassive black holes can only be detected as quasars – which are one kind of highly luminous active galactic nucleus (AGN) – when they are actively accreting matter, a process that releases vast amounts of energy across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. A leading theory of ordinary AGNs is that galaxy mergers trigger accretion, creating quasars in both galaxies (AGNs in the hearts of the giant elliptical galaxies in rich clusters are thought to be fueled by a different mechanism, cooling flow). Because most such mergers would have happened in the distant past, binary quasars and their associated galaxies are very far away and therefore difficult for most telescopes to resolve.

The binary quasar, named SDSS J1254+0846, was initially detected by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a multi-year, large scale astronomical survey of galaxies and quasars. Further observations by Paul Green of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and colleagues using NASA’s Chandra’s X-ray Observatory and telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona and Palomar Observatory in California strongly suggest that the object was likely a binary quasar in the midst of a galaxy merger. Carnegie’s Mulchaey then used the 6.5 meter Baade-Magellan telescope at the Las Campanas observatory in Chile to obtain deeper images and more detailed spectroscopy of the merging galaxies.

The Astrophysical Journal paper on this object is: “SDSS J1254+0846: A Binary Quasar Caught in the Act of Merging” (Paul J. Green et al 2010 ApJ 710 1578-1588; arXiv:1001.1738 is the preprint).

Source: Carnegie Institution for Science

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