A Neutron Star Merged with a Surprisingly Light Black Hole

Artwork of a neutron star–black hole merger. Credit: Carl Knox, OzGrav-Swinburne University.

Galactic collisions, meteor impacts and even stellar mergers are not uncommon events. neutron stars colliding with black holes however are a little more rare, in fact, until now, we have never observed one. The fourth LIGO-Virgo-KAGRA observing detected gravitational waves from a collision between a black hole and neutron star 650 million light years away. The black hole was tiny though with a mass between 2.5 to 4.5 times that of the Sun. 

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Black Holes are Tearing Stars Apart All Around Us

Illustration of star remnants after it is shredded by a supermassive black hole. Credit: NASA

Galaxy NGC3799 lies around 16 million light years from Earth. Any event observed today within that galaxy took place 16 million years ago. One such event was observed in February 2023 when a surge in brightness in the core was followed by a rapid dimming. The observations that followed revealed that the event was a star being torn apart by a supermassive black hole at the heart of the galaxy. This is not the first time such an event has been observed but it is the first to be within our galactic backyard suggesting it may be more common that first thought. 

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Astronomers Find the Most Massive Pair of Supermassive Black Holes Ever Seen

Artist's illustration of binary black holes

Supermassive black holes have been found at the heart of most galaxies but understanding how they have formed has eluded astronomers for some time. One of the most popular theories suggests they merge over and over again to form larger black holes. A recent discovery may support this however the pair of supermassive black holes are orbiting 24 light years apart and measure an incredible 28 billion solar masses making it the heaviest ever seen. 

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What are the Differences Between Quasars and Microquasars?

Artist's impression of a microquasar

Quasars are fascinating objects; supermassive black holes that are actively feasting on material from their accretion disks. The result is a jet that can outshine the combined light from the entire galaxy! There are smaller blackholes too that are the result of the death of stars and these also sometimes seem to host accretion disks and jets just like their larger cousins. We call these microquasars and, whilst there are similarities between them, there are differences too.

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Astronomers Watched a Massive Star Just… Disappear. Now JWST Might Have Some Answers

Illustration of how a failed supernova can become a black hole. Credit: NASA/ESA/P. Jeffries (STScI)

In 2009 a giant star 25 times more massive than the Sun simply…vanished. Okay, it wasn’t quite that simple. It underwent a period of brightening, increasing in luminosity to a million Suns, just as if it was ready to explode into a supernova. But then it faded rather than exploding. And when astronomers tried to see the star, using the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT), Hubble, and the Spitzer space telescope, they couldn’t see anything.

The star, known as N6946-BH1, is now considered a failed supernova. The BH1 in its name is due to the fact that astronomers think the star collapsed to become a black hole rather than triggering a supernova. But that has been conjecture. All we’ve known for sure is that it brightened for a time then grew too dim for our telescopes to observe. But that has changed, thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

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A Tadpole-Shaped Cloud of Gas is Whirling Around a Black Hole

Artist’s Impression of the “Tadpole” Molecular Cloud and the black hole at the gravitational center of its orbit. Credit: Keio University

In the 1930s, astrophysicists theorized that at the end of their life cycle, particularly massive stars would collapse, leaving behind remnants of infinite mass and density. As a proposed resolution to Einstein’s field equations (for his Theory of General Relativity), these objects came to be known as “black holes” because nothing (even light) could escape them. By the 1960s, astronomers began to infer the existence of these objects based on the observable effects they have on neighboring objects and their surrounding environment.

Despite improvements in instruments and interferometry (which led to the first images of M87 and Sagittarius A*), the study of black holes still relies on indirect methods. In a recent study, a team of Japanese researchers identified an unusual cloud of gas that appears to have been elongated by a massive, compact object that it orbits. Since there are no massive stars in its vicinity, they theorize that the cloud (nicknamed the “Tadpole” because of its shape) orbits a black hole roughly 27,000 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius.

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The Building Blocks for Supermassive Black Holes are Found in Dwarf Galaxies

The newly discovered massive black holes reside in dwarf galaxies, where their radiation competes with the light of abundant young stars. (Original image by NASA & ESA/Hubble, artistic conception of black hole with jet by M. Polimera.)

We all know that a humongous black hole exists at the center of our galaxy. It’s called Sagittarius A* (Sgr A* for short) and it has the mass of 4 million suns. We’ve got to see a radio image of it a few weeks back, showing its accretion disk. So, we know it’s there. Astronomers can chart its actions as it gobbles up matter occasionally and they can see how it affects nearby stars. What astronomers are still trying to understand is how Sgr A* formed.

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Astronomers Find a Black Hole That was Somehow Pushed Over Onto its Side

Artist impression of the X-ray binary system MAXI J1820+070 containing a black hole (small black dot at the center of the gaseous disk) and a companion star. A narrow jet is directed along the black hole spin axis, which is strongly misaligned from the rotation axis of the orbit. Image produced with Binsim (credit: R. Hynes).

The planets in our Solar System all rotate on axes that roughly match the Sun’s rotational axis. This agreement between the axes of rotation is the typical arrangement in any system in space where smaller objects orbit a larger one.

But in one distant binary system, the large central object has an axis of rotation tilted about 40 degrees compared to its smaller satellite. This situation is even more strange because the main body isn’t a star but a black hole.

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Gravitational Waves Reveal Surprising Secrets About Neutron Stars

The confirmation of gravitational waves back in 2017 continues to unlock whole new worlds of physics but also continues to elicit further questions.  The detection of each gravitational wave brings a new challenge – how to find out what caused the event.  Sometimes that is harder than it sounds.  Now a team led by Alejandro Vigna-Gomez of the University of Copenhagen thinks they found a model of star death that helps to explain some previously inexplicable findings – and points to a galaxy with many more massive neutron stars than previously thought.

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One Star Could Answer Many Unsolved Questions About Black Holes

Detection of an unusually bright X-Ray flare from Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/CXC/Stanford/I. Zhuravleva et al.

A supermassive black hole (SMBH) likely resides at the center of the Milky Way, and in the centers of other galaxies like it. It’s never been seen though. It was discovered by watching a cluster of stars near the galactic center, called S stars.

S stars’ motions indicated the presence of a massive object in the Milky Way’s center and the scientific community mostly agreed that it must be an SMBH. It’s named Sagittarius A*.

But some scientists wonder if it really is a black hole. And one of the S stars could answer that question and a few others about black holes.

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