Galaxy Mergers Make Black Holes ‘Light Up’

The optical counterparts of many active galactic nuclei (circled) detected by the Swift BAT Hard X-ray Survey clearly show galaxies in the process of merging. Credit: NASA/Swift/NOAO/Michael Koss and Richard Mushotzky (Univ. of Maryland)

Only about 1% of supermassive black holes emit large amounts of energy, and astronomers have wondered for decades why so few exhibit this behavior. Data from Swift satellite, which normally studies gamma ray bursts, has allowed scientists to confirm that black holes “light up” when galaxies collide, and the data may offer insight into the future behavior of the black hole in our own Milky Way galaxy.

The intense emission from galaxy centers, or nuclei, arises near a supermassive black hole containing between a million and a billion times the sun’s mass. Giving off as much as 10 billion times the sun’s energy, some of these active galactic nuclei (AGN) are the most luminous objects in the universe. They include quasars and blazars.

“Theorists have shown that the violence in galaxy mergers can feed a galaxy’s central black hole,” said Michael Koss, the study’s lead author and a graduate student at the University of Maryland in College Park. “The study elegantly explains how the black holes switched on.”

Swift was launched in 2004, and while its Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) is waiting to detect the next gamma ray burst, it also has been mapping the sky using hard X-rays, said Neil Gehrels, Swift’s principal investigator. “In fact, it detected its 508th gamma ray burst about 30 minutes ago,” Gehrels said at the press conference the morning of May 26th at the 216th meeting of the American Astronomical Society. “But building up its exposure year after year, the Swift BAT Hard X-ray Survey is the largest, most sensitive and complete census of the sky at these energies.”

Until this hard X-ray survey, astronomers never could be sure they had counted the majority of the AGN. Thick clouds of dust and gas surround the black hole in an active galaxy, which can block ultraviolet, optical and low-energy, or soft X-ray, light. Infrared radiation from warm dust near the black hole can pass through the material, but it can be confused with emissions from the galaxy’s star-forming regions. Hard X-rays can help scientists directly detect the energetic black hole.


The survey, which is sensitive to AGN as far as 650 million light-years away, uncovered dozens of previously unrecognized systems.

“The Swift BAT survey is giving us a very different picture of AGN,” Koss said. The team finds that about a quarter of the BAT galaxies are in mergers or close pairs. “Perhaps 60 percent of these galaxies will completely merge in the next billion years. We think we have the ‘smoking gun’ for merger-triggered AGN that theorists have predicted.”

“A big problem in astronomy is understanding how black holes grow and are fed,” said Joel Bregman from the University of Michigan. “We know growth in the early stages of a black hole’s life is a combination of mergers plus accretion of gas and dust from nearby stars, and we think that the accretion is the more important process. But this shows us that the feeding of the gas and dust has been channeled into the center at a fairly early stage, and the disturbance from the mergers allows gas to be funneled into the center and flow into the black hole.”

“We’ve never seen the onset of AGN activity so clearly,” said Bregman, who was not involved in the study. “The Swift team must be identifying an early stage of the process with the Hard X-ray Survey.”

Other members of the study team include Richard Mushotzky and Sylvain Veilleux at the University of Maryland and Lisa Winter at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The study will appear in the June 20 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Source: NASA, NASA press conference

Black Hole Gets Kicked Out of Galaxy

A Hubble Space Telescope image of the galaxy studied by Marianne Heida. The white circle marks the centre of the galaxy and the red circle marks the position of the suspected offset black hole. Image: STScI / NASA


Supermassive black holes are thought to lie at the center of most large galaxies. But off in a distant remote galaxy, astronomers have possibly found a giant black hole that appears to be in the process of being expelled from the galaxy at high speed. This newly-discovered object was found by Marianne Heida, a student at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and confirmed by an international team of astronomers who say the black hole was likely kicked out of its galaxy as a result of the merger of two smaller black holes.

Heida discovered the bizarre object, called CXO J122518.6+144545 during her final undergraduate project while doing research at the SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research. To make the discovery she had to compare hundreds of thousands of X-ray sources, picked up by chance, with the positions of millions of galaxies. X-rays are also able to penetrate the dust and gas that surround black holes, with the bright source appearing as a starlike point. This object was very bright; however, it wasn’t at the center of a galaxy.

Super-massive black holes easily weigh more than 1 billion times the mass of the sun. So how could such a heavy object be hurled away from the galaxy at such high speeds? Astronomers say the expulsion can take place under special conditions when two black holes merge. The merger process creates a new black hole, and supercomputer models suggest that the larger black hole that results is shot out away at high speed, depending on the direction and speed in which the two black holes rotate before their collision.

And, the team of astronomers say, there could be more of these “recoiling” black holes out there. “We have found even more of this strange class of X-ray sources,” said Heida. “However, for these objects we first of all need accurate measurements from NASA’s Chandra satellite to pinpoint them more precisely.”

If this object is not a recoiling black hole, other possibilities are that it could possibly be either a very blue type IIn supernova or a ULX (ultra-luminous X-ray source) with a very bright optical counterpart.

Finding more of these expelled black holes will provide a better understanding of the characteristics of black holes before they merge. In the future, astronomers hope to even observe this process with the planned LISA satellite, which will be able to measure the gravity waves that the two merging black holes emit. Further research will provide more insight into how supermassive black holes are created.

Paper: “A bright off-nuclear X-ray source: a type IIn supernova, a bright ULX or a recoiling super-massive black hole in CXO J122518.6+144545”.

Sources: SRON, Royal Astronomical Society

Is Our Universe Inside Another Larger Universe?

Wormhole. Credit: Internet Encyclopedia of Science


A wormhole is a hypothetical “tunnel” connecting two different points in spacetime, and in theory, at each end of the wormhole there could be two universes. Theoretical physicist Nikodem Poplawski from Indiana University has taken things a step further by proposing that perhaps our universe could be located within the interior of a wormhole which itself is part of a black hole that lies within a much larger universe.

Whoa. I may have just lost my bearings.

As crazy as the concept of wormholes sounds, it does offer solutions to the equations of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. In fact, wormholes – also called an Einstein-Rosen Bridge — offer such a great solution that some theorists think that real wormholes may eventually be found or even created, and perhaps they could even be used for high-speed travel between two areas in space, or maybe even time travel.

However, a known property of wormholes is that they are highly unstable and would probably collapse instantly if even the tiniest amount of matter, such as a single photon, tried to travel though them.

But would it work – and could matter exist — if we were inside a wormhole inside a black hole inside another universe? Poplawski thinks so. He takes advantage of the Euclidean-based coordinate system called isotropic coordinates to describe the gravitational field of a black hole and to model the radial geodesic motion of a massive particle into a black hole.

“This condition would be satisfied if our universe were the interior of a black hole existing in a bigger universe,” Poplawski said. “Because Einstein’s general theory of relativity does not choose a time orientation, if a black hole can form from the gravitational collapse of matter through an event horizon in the future then the reverse process is also possible. Such a process would describe an exploding white hole: matter emerging from an event horizon in the past, like the expanding universe.”

So, a white hole would be connected to a black hole a wormhole, and is hypothetically the time reversal of a black hole. (Oh my, I’m now dizzy…)

Poplawski’s paper suggests that all astrophysical black holes, not just Schwarzschild and Einstein-Rosen black holes, may have Einstein-Rosen bridges, each with a new universe inside that formed simultaneously with the black hole.

“From that it follows that our universe could have itself formed from inside a black hole existing inside another universe,” he said.

IU theoretical physicist Nikodem Poplawski. Credit: Indiana University

By continuing to study the gravitational collapse of a sphere of dust in isotropic coordinates, and by applying the current research to other types of black holes, views where the universe is born from the interior of an Einstein-Rosen black hole could avoid problems seen by scientists with the Big Bang theory and the black hole information loss problem which claims all information about matter is lost as it goes over the event horizon (in turn defying the laws of quantum physics).

Poplawski theorizes that this model in isotropic coordinates of the universe as a black hole could explain the origin of cosmic inflation.

Could this be tested? Well, there is the issue that to see if an object could travel through a wormhole, the observer would have to be inside the wormhole as well, since the interior cannot be observed unless an observer enters or resides within.

A possible solution is that exotic matter wouldn’t collapse the wormhole, so we’d have to create – and be made of – exotic matter to keep the it open. But perhaps, as Poplawski proposes, if the wormhole is inside a black hole inside another universe it would work.

Anyone ready to give it a try?

Radial motion into an Einstein-Rosen bridge,” Physics Letters B, by Nikodem J. Poplawski. (Volume 687, Issues 2-3, 12 April 2010, Pages 110-113.

Sources: Indiana University
, Internet Encyclopedia of Science

Astronomers Find Black Holes Do Not Absorb Dark Matter

Artist’s schematic impression of the distortion of spacetime by a supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy. The black hole will swallow dark matter at a rate which depends on its mass and on the amount of dark matter around it. Image: Felipe Esquivel Reed.


There’s the common notion that black holes suck in everything in the nearby vicinity by exerting a strong gravitational influence on the matter, energy, and space surrounding them. But astronomers have found that the dark matter around black holes might be a different story. Somehow dark matter resists ‘assimilation’ into a black hole.

About 23% of the Universe is made up of mysterious dark matter, invisible material only detected through its gravitational influence on its surroundings. In the early Universe clumps of dark matter are thought to have attracted gas, which then coalesced into stars that eventually assembled the galaxies we see today. In their efforts to understand galaxy formation and evolution, astronomers have spent a good deal of time attempting to simulate the build up of dark matter in these objects.

Dr. Xavier Hernandez and Dr. William Lee from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) calculated the way in which the black holes found at the center of galaxies absorb dark matter. These black holes have anything between millions and billions of times the mass of the Sun and draw in material at a high rate.

The researchers modeled the way in which the dark matter is absorbed by black holes and found that the rate at which this happens is very sensitive to the amount of dark matter found in the black holes’ vicinity. If this concentration were larger than a critical density of 7 Suns of matter spread over each cubic light year of space, the black hole mass would increase so rapidly, hence engulfing such large amounts of dark matter, that soon the entire galaxy would be altered beyond recognition.

“Over the billions of years since galaxies formed, such runaway absorption of dark matter in black holes would have altered the population of galaxies away from what we actually observe,” said Hernandez

Their work therefore suggests that the density of dark matter in the centers of galaxies tends to be a constant value. By comparing their observations to what current models of the evolution of the Universe predict, Hernandez and Lee conclude that it is probably necessary to change some of the assumptions that underpin these models – dark matter may not behave in the way scientists thought it did.

There work appears in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The team’s paper can be found here.

Can a Really, Really Fast Spacecraft Turn Into A Black Hole?

This question was posed in an Astronomy Cast episode a while back. It offers an interesting thought experiment, although a reasonably definitive answer to the question can be arrived at. 

Imagine a scenario where a spacecraft gains relativistic mass as it approaches the speed of light, while at the same time its volume is reduced via relativistic length contraction. If these changes can continue towards infinite values (which they can) – it seems you have the perfect recipe for a black hole

Of course, the key word here is relativistic. Back on Earth, it can appear that a spacecraft which is approaching the speed of light, is indeed both gaining mass and shrinking in volume. Also, light from the spacecraft will become increasingly red-shifted – potentially into almost-blackness. This can be partly Doppler effect for a receding spacecraft, but is also partly a time dilation effect where the sub-atomic particles of the spacecraft seem to oscillate slower and hence emit light at lower frequencies. 

So, back on Earth, ongoing measurements may indicate the spacecraft is becoming more massive, more dense and much darker as its velocity increases. 

But of course, that’s just back on Earth. If we sent out two such spacecraft flying in formation – they could look across at each other and see that everything was quite normal. The captain might call a red alert when they look back towards Earth and see that it is starting to turn into a black hole – but hopefully the future captains of our starships will have enough knowledge of relativistic physics not to be too concerned. 

So, one answer to the Astronomy Cast question is that yes, a very fast spacecraft can appear to be almost indistinguishable from a black hole – from a particular frame (or frames) of reference. 

But it’s never really a black hole. 

Centaurus A with jets powered by a supermassive black hole within - the orange jets are as seen in submillimetre by the Atacama Pathfinder and the blue lobes are as seen by the Chandra X-ray space telescope.

Special relativity allows you to calculate transformations from your proper mass (as well as proper length, proper volume, proper density etc) as your relative velocity changes. So, it is certainly possible to find a point of reference from which your relativistic mass (length, volume, density etc) will seem to mimic the parameters of a black hole. 

But a real black hole is a different story. Its proper mass and other parameters are already those of a black hole – indeed you won’t be able to find a point of reference where they aren’t. 

A real black hole is a real black hole – from any frame of reference. 

(I must acknowledge my Dad – Professor Graham Nerlich, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Adelaide and author of The Shape of Space, for assistance in putting this together).

GRB Central Engines Observed in Nearby Supernovae?

SN 2009bb (Image Credit: NASA, Swift, Stefan Immler)

Are the relativistic jets of long gamma ray bursts (GRBs) produced by brand new black holes? Do some core-collapse supernovae result in black holes and relativistic jets?

The answer to both questions is ‘very likely, yes’! And what recent research points to those answers? Study of an Ic supernova (SN 2007gr), and an Ibc one (SN 2009bb), by two different teams, using archived Gamma-Ray Burst Coordination Network data, and trans-continental Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) radio observations.

“In every respect, these objects look like gamma-ray bursts – except that they produced no gamma rays,” said Alicia Soderberg at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.

Soderberg led a team that studied SN 2009bb, a supernova discovered in March 2009. It exploded in the spiral galaxy NGC 3278, located about 130 million light-years away.

SN 2007gr (Image Credit: Z. Paragi, Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe (JIVE))

The other object is SN 2007gr, which was first detected in August 2007 in the spiral galaxy NGC 1058, some 35 million light-years away (it’s one of the closest Ic supernovae detected in the radio waveband). The team which studied this supernova using VLBI was led by Zsolt Paragi at the Netherlands-based Joint Institute for Very Long Baseline Interferometry in Europe, and included Chryssa Kouveliotou, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The researchers searched for gamma-rays associated with the supernovae using archived records in the Gamma-Ray Burst Coordination Network located at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. This project distributes and archives observations of gamma-ray bursts by NASA’s SWIFT spacecraft, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and many others. However, no bursts coincided with the supernovae.

“The explosion dynamics in typical supernovae limit the speed of the expanding matter to about three percent the speed of light,” explained Kouveliotou, co-author of one of the new studies. “Yet, in these new objects, we’re tracking gas moving some 20 times faster than this.”

Unlike typical core-collapse supernovae, the stars that produce long gamma-ray bursts possess a “central engine” – likely a nascent black hole – that drives particle jets clocked at more than 99 percent the speed of light (short GRBs are likely produced by the collision/merger of two neutron stars, or a neutron star and a stellar mass black hole).

By contrast, the fastest outflows detected from SN 2009bb reached 85 percent of the speed of light and SN 2007gr reached more than 60 percent of light speed; this is “mildly relativistic”.

“These observations are the first to show some supernovae are powered by a central engine,” Soderberg said. “These new radio techniques now give us a way to find explosions that resemble gamma-ray bursts without relying on detections from gamma-ray satellites.”

The VLBI radio observations showcase how the new electronic capabilities of the European VLBI Network empower astronomers to react quickly when transient events occur. The team led by Paragi included 14 members from 12 institutions spread over seven countries, the United States, the Netherlands, Hungary, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and South Africa.

“Using the electronic VLBI technique eliminates some of the major issues,” said Huib Jan van Langevelde, the director of JIVE “Moreover it allows us to produce immediate results necessary for the planning of additional measurements.”

Perhaps as few as one out of every 10,000 supernovae produce gamma rays that we detect as a long gamma-ray burst. In some cases, the star’s jets may not be angled in a way to produce a detectable burst; in others, the energy of the jets may not be enough to allow them to blast through the overlying bulk of the dying star.

“We’ve now found evidence for the unsung crowd of supernovae – those with relatively dim and mildly relativistic jets that only can be detected nearby,” Kouveliotou said. “These likely represent most of the population.”

The 28 January, 2010 issue of Nature contains two papers reporting these discoveries: A relativistic type Ibc supernova without a detected γ-ray burst (arXiv:0908.2817 is the preprint), and A mildly relativistic radio jet from the otherwise normal type Ic supernova 2007gr (arXiv:1001.5060 is the preprint).

Sources: Newborn Black Holes May Add Power to Many Exploding Stars, Newborn Black Holes Boost Explosive Power of Supernovae

Extra-Galactic Whopper Black Hole Breaks Distance Record

This image composite shows the spectacular spiral galaxy NGC 300 as seen in an image from the Digitized Sky Survey 2 (DSS2), as well as the position of the stellar-mass black hole in the galaxy in an image obtained with the FORS2 instrument on the VLT. Credit: ESO/ Digitized Sky Survey 2/P. Crowther


Not only is a newly found black huge, it also is the most far-away stellar-mass black hole ever detected. “This is the most distant stellar-mass black hole ever weighed, and it’s the first one we’ve seen outside our own galactic neighborhood, the Local Group,” said Paul Crowther, from the University of Sheffield. Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope, astronomers peered six million light-years from Earth into a spiral galaxy called NGC 300 and found a black hole with a mass above fifteen times that of the Sun. This makes it the second most massive stellar-mass black hole ever found. But soon it could get bigger. The black hole appears to have a nearby partner, a massive Wolf–Rayet star which likely will become a black hole itself, and the two black holes could merge into an even more massive object.

This image obtained with the FORS2 instrument on the VLT is centred on the position of the black hole. The image covers a field of view of about 2x2 arcminutes, or about 4000 light-years at the distance of NGC 300. Credit: ESO/P. Crowther

In 2007, an X-ray source in NGC 300 was discovered with the XMM-Newton X-ray observatory and the Swift Observatory. “We recorded periodic, extremely intense X-ray emission, a clue that a black hole might be lurking in the area,” said team member Stefania Carpano from ESA.

Subsequent observations with the VLT’s FORS2 instrument (a visual and near UV FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph) confirmed their hunch, but also showed that the black hole and the Wolf–Rayet star circled each other every 32 hours. The astronomers also found that the black hole is stripping matter away from the star as they orbit each other.

“This is indeed a very ‘intimate’ couple,” said collaborator Robin Barnard. “How such a tightly bound system has been formed is still a mystery.”

Artists impression of the black hole and Wolf-Rayet star in NGC 300. Credit: ESO

Stellar-mass black holes are the extremely dense, final remnants of the collapse of very massive stars. These black holes have masses up to around twenty times the mass of the Sun, as opposed to supermassive black holes, found in the center of most galaxies, which can weigh a million to a billion times as much as the Sun. So far, around 20 stellar-mass black holes have been found.

Only one other system of this type has previously been seen, but other systems comprising a black hole and a companion star are not unknown to astronomers. Based on these systems, the astronomers see a connection between black hole mass and galactic chemistry.

“We have noticed that the most massive black holes tend to be found in smaller galaxies that contain less ‘heavy’ chemical elements,” said Crowther. “Bigger galaxies that are richer in heavy elements, such as the Milky Way, only succeed in producing black holes with smaller masses.”

Astronomers believe that a higher concentration of heavy chemical elements influences how a massive star evolves, increasing how much matter it sheds, resulting in a smaller black hole when the remnant finally collapses.

In less than a million years, it will be the Wolf–Rayet star’s turn to go supernova and become a black hole. “If the system survives this second explosion, the two black holes will merge, emitting copious amounts of energy in the form of gravitational waves as they combine,” said Crowther.

But this won’t happen for a few billion years. “Our study does however show that such systems might exist, and those that have already evolved into a binary black hole might be detected by probes of gravitational waves, such as LIGO or Virgo.”

Paper: NGC 300 1-X is a Wolf-Rayet/Black Hole Binary

Source: ESO

Dual Black Holes Spinning in a Cosmic Dance – Complete with Disco Ball

Caption: An image of the galaxy COSMOS J100043.15+020637.2 taken with the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the Hubble Space Telescope. Image courtesy Dr. Julia Comerford.

Astronomers have discovered 33 pairs of merging black holes in cosmic dances around each other, a finding that was predicted or ‘choreographed’ by Isaac Newton. “These results are significant because we now know that these ‘waltzing’ black holes are much more common than previously known,” said Dr. Julia Comerford of the University of California, Berkeley, at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, DC. “Galaxy mergers are causing the waltzing, can use this finding to determine how often mergers occur. The black holes dancing towards us are shifted towards blue light, and those moving away from us are shifted toward the red. So it is like a cosmic disco ball showing us where the black holes are dancing.”

The dances are occurring in dual black holes, which are different from binary black holes in that the distance between the two object is much larger for dual black holes.

“These black holes have a separation of a kilo parsec,” said Comerford. “You haven’t heard about lots of small binary black holes, because no one has definitively found any yet. But this is the next best thing. We know these duals are going to merge and can use models to find out how often they merge.”

The team was able to observe the black holes that have gas collapsing onto them, and this gas releases energy and powers each black hole as an active galactic nucleus (AGN), which lights up the black hole like a Christmas tree.

Astronomical observations have shown that nearly every galaxy has a central supermassive black hole (with a mass of a million to a billion times the mass of the Sun), and also that galaxies commonly collide and merge to form new, more massive galaxies. As a consequence of these two observations, a merger between two galaxies should bring two supermassive black holes to the new, more massive galaxy formed from the merger. The two black holes gradually in-spiral toward the center of this galaxy, engaging in a gravitational tug-of-war with the surrounding stars. The result is a black hole dance. Such a dance is expected to occur in our own Milky Way Galaxy in about 3 billion years, when it collides with the Andromeda Galaxy.

The team of astronomers used two new techniques to discover the waltzing black holes. First, they identified waltzing black holes and their velocities by the disco ball of the red-shift or blue-shift.

The second technique for identifying waltzing black holes through a chance discovery of a curious-looking galaxy. While visually inspecting images of galaxies taken with the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the Hubble Space Telescope, the team noticed a galaxy with a tidal tail of stars, gas, and dust, an unmistakable sign that the galaxy had recently merged with another galaxy, and the galaxy also featured two bright nuclei near its center. The team recognized that the two bright nuclei might be the AGNs of two waltzing black holes, a hypothesis seemingly supported by the recent galaxy merger activity evinced by the tidal tail. To test this hypothesis, the very next night the team obtained a spectrum of the galaxy with the DEIMOS spectrograph on the 10-meter (400-inch) Keck II Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

The spectrum showed that the two central nuclei in the galaxy were indeed both AGNs, supporting the team’s hypothesis that the galaxy has two supermassive black holes. The black holes may be waltzing within the host galaxy, or the galaxy may have a recoiling black hole kicked out of the galaxy by gravity wave emission; additional observations are necessary to distinguish between these explanations.

Comerford said these new techniques can be used to find many more waltzing pairs in the future.

Source: AAS, Dr. Julia Comerford’s website

Stellar Destruction Could Be from Intermediate Black Hole

NGC 1399, an elliptical galaxy about 65 million light years from Earth. Credit: NASA, Chandra

NGC 1399, an elliptical galaxy about 65 million light years from Earth. Credit: NASA, Chandra

A dense stellar remnant has been ripped apart by a black hole a thousand times as massive as the Sun. If confirmed, this discovery would be a cosmic double play: it would be strong evidence for an intermediate mass black hole — which has been a hotly debated topic — and would mark the first time such a black hole has been caught tearing a star apart. Scientists believe a mysterious intense X-ray emission, called an “ultraluminous X-ray source” or ULX is responsible for the destruction. “Astronomers have made cases for stars being torn apart by supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies before, but this is the first good evidence for such an event in a globular cluster,” said Jimmy Irwin of the University of Alabama, who led the study.

The new results come from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Magellan telescope, and were announced at the 215th American Astronomical Society meeting today.

The scenario is based on Chandra observations, which revealed the ULX in a dense cluster of old stars, and optical observations that showed a peculiar mix of elements associated with the X-ray emission. Taken together, a case can be made that the X-ray emission is produced by debris from a disrupted white dwarf star that is heated as it falls towards a massive black hole. The optical emission comes from debris further out that is illuminated by these X-rays.

The intensity of the X-ray emission places the source in the category, meaning that it is more luminous than any known stellar X-ray source, but less luminous than the bright X-ray sources (active galactic nuclei) associated with supermassive black holes in the nuclei of galaxies. The nature of ULXs is a mystery, but one suggestion is that some ULXs are black holes with masses between about a hundred and several thousand times that of the Sun, a range intermediate between stellar-mass black holes and supermassive black holes located in the nuclei of galaxies.

Evidence from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Magellan telescopes suggest a star has been torn apart by an intermediate-mass black hole in a globular cluster. Credit: NASA, Chandra

This ULX is in a globular cluster, NGC 1399, an elliptical galaxy about 65 million light-years from Earth that is a very old and crowded conglomeration of stars. Astronomers have suspected that globular clusters could contain intermediate-mass black holes, but conclusive evidence for this has been elusive.

Irwin and his colleagues obtained optical spectra of the object using the Magellan I and II telescopes in Las Campanas, Chile. These data reveal emission from gas rich in oxygen and nitrogen but no hydrogen, a rare set of signals from globular clusters. The physical conditions deduced from the spectra suggest that the gas is orbiting a black hole of at least 1,000 solar masses. The abundant amount of oxygen and absence of hydrogen indicate that the destroyed star was a white dwarf, the end phase of a solar-type star that has burned its hydrogen leaving a high concentration of oxygen. The nitrogen seen in the optical spectrum remains an enigma.

“We think these unusual signatures can be explained by a white dwarf that strayed too close to a black hole and was torn apart by the extreme tidal forces,” said coauthor Joel Bregman of the University of Michigan.

Theoretical work suggests that the tidal disruption-induced X-ray emission could stay bright for more than a century, but it should fade with time. So far, the team has observed there has been a 35% decline in X-ray emission from 2000 to 2008.

Irwin said at today’s press conference that a new survey just getting started will look for more globular clusters with x-ray sources.

Sources: Chandra, AAS Meeting

The Shrinking Doughnut Around a Black Hole

GX 339-4, illustrated here, is a binary system of a black hole and a star. Astronomers were able to measure how the disk around the black hole shrinks for the first time. Image Credit: Credit: ESO/L. Calcada


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