Dodging Black Hole Bullets

This 327-MHz radio view of the center of our galaxy highlights the position of the black hole system H1743-322, as well as other features. (Credit: J. Miller-Jones, ICRAR-Curtin Univ.; C. Brogan, NRAO)


In mid-2009 a binary star system cataloged as H H1743–322 shot off something very unusual. Poised about 28,000 light years distant in the direction of the constellation of Scorpius, this rather ordinary system made up of a normal star and unknown mass black hole was busy exchanging mass. The pair orbits in mere days with a stream of material flowing continuously between them. This gas causes a flat accretion disk measuring millions of miles across to form and it is centered on the black hole. As the matter twirls toward the center, it becomes compressed and heats to tens of millions of degrees, spitting out X-rays… and bullets.

Utilizing data from NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) satellite and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) radio telescope, an international team of astronomers were able to confirm the moment a black hole located within our galaxy fired a super speedy clump of gas into surrounding space. Blasting forth at about one-quarter the speed of light, these “bullets” of ionized gas are hypothesized to have originated from an area just outside the black hole’s event horizon.

“Like a referee at a sports game, we essentially rewound the footage on the bullets’ progress, pinpointing when they were launched,” said Gregory Sivakoff of the University of Alberta in Canada. He presented the findings today at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas. “With the unique capabilities of RXTE and the VLBA, we can associate their ejection with changes that likely signaled the start of the process.”

As we have learned, some of the matter headed toward the center of a black hole can be ejected from the accretion disk as opposing twin jets. For the most part, these jets are a constant stream of particles, but can sometimes form into strong “outflows” which get spit out – rapid fire – as gaseous blobs. In early June 2009, H1743–322 did just that… and astronomers were on hand observing with RXTE, the VLBA, the Very Large Array near Socorro, N.M., and the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) near Narrabri in New South Wales. During this time they were able to confirm the happenings through X-ray and radio data. From May 28 to June 2, things were nominal “though RXTE data show that cyclic X-ray variations, known as quasi-periodic oscillations or QPOs, gradually increased in frequency over the same period” and by June 4th, ATCA verified that activity had pretty much sloughed off. By June 5th, even the QPOs were gone.

Then it happened…

On the same day that everything went totally quiet, H1743–322 fired off a bullet! Radio emissions jumped and a highly accurate and detailed VLBA image disclosed a energetic missile of gas blasting forth along a jet trajectory. The very next day a second bullet took out in the opposite direction. But this wasn’t the curious part of the event… It was the timing. Up to this point, researchers speculated that a radio outburst accompanied the firing of the gas bullet, but VLBA information showed they were launched around 48 hours in advance of the major radio flare. This information will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Radio imaging by the Very Long Baseline Array (top row), combined with simultaneous X-ray observations by NASA's RXTE (middle), captured the transient ejection of massive gas "bullets" by the black hole binary H1743-322 during its 2009 outburst. By tracking the motion of these bullets with the VLBA, astronomers were able to link the ejection event to the disappearance of X-ray signals seen in RXTE data. These signals, called quasi-periodic oscillations (QPOs), vanished two days earlier than the onset of the radio flare that astronomers previously had assumed signaled the ejection. (Credit: NRAO and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

“This research provides new clues about the conditions needed to initiate a jet and can guide our thinking about how it happens,” said Chris Done, an astrophysicist at the University of Durham, England, who was not involved in the study.

These are just mini-ammo compared to what happens in the center of an active galaxy. They don’t just fire bullets – they blast off cannons. A massive black hole weighing in a millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun can shoot off its load across millions of light years!

“Black hole jets in binary star systems act as fast-forwarded versions of their galactic-scale cousins, giving us insights into how they work and how their enormous energy output can influence the growth of galaxies and clusters of galaxies,” said lead researcher James Miller-Jones at the International Center for Radio Astronomy Research at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.

Original Story Source: NASA News Feature.

NASA’s Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer Retires

Technicians work on RXTE in 1995. Credit: NASA/Goddard


For more than 16 years, 2,200 papers in refereed journals, 92 doctoral theses, and more than 1,000 rapid notifications alerting astronomers around the globe to new astronomical activity, the NASA Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer is now retired. It sent the last of its data on January 4th of this year and on January 5th the plucky little satellite was decommissioned. If you’re not familiar with Rossi’s activities, then picture sending back images and data on the extreme environments around white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes… because that’s what made the mission famous.

On December 30, 1995, the mission was launched as XTE from Cape Canaveral, Florida on board a Delta II 7920 rocket. Within weeks it was named in honor of Bruno Rossi, an MIT astronomer and a pioneer of X-ray astronomy and space plasma physics who died in 1993. However, the mission itself didn’t die – it excelled with honors. The entire scientific community recognized the importance of RXTE research and bestowed it with five awards – four Rossi Prizes (1999, 2003, 2006 and 2009) from the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the AAS and the 2004 NWO Spinoza prize, the highest Dutch science award, from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.

On board, the Rossi was three scientific instruments housed in one unit. The first was the Proportional Counter Array (PCA), which was centered on the lower end of the energy band and was crafted by Goddard. The second instrument was the High Energy X-Ray Timing Experiment (HEXTE) that could be aimed at very specific targets and was manufactured by the University of California at San Diego for exploring the upper energy range. The last of the trio was the All-Sky Monitor developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. It took in about 80% of the sky during each orbit, delivering astronomers with an unprecedented amount of data on the wide variances of X-Ray sky and allowing them to record bright sources over a period of time as short as a few microseconds up to months. All of this information was taken in over a broad span of energy ranging from 2,000 to 250,000 electron volts.

The Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer asked little and returned much. Over its operating lifetime it gave us new insight in the life cycles of neutron stars and black holes. Through its eyes we learned about magnetars and discovered the first accreting millisecond pulsar. But that’s not all. The RXTE provided hard evidence which supported Einstein’s theory by observing “frame dragging” in the neighborhood of a black hole. Even though the instrumentation would be considered antique by today’s standards, it certainly served its purpose. “The spacecraft and its instruments had been showing their age, and in the end RXTE had accomplished everything we put it up there to do, and much more,” said Tod Strohmayer, RXTE project scientist at Goddard.

According to the NASA news release, the decision to decommission RXTE followed the recommendations of a 2010 review board tasked to evaluate and rank each of NASA’s operating astrophysics missions. The three and a half ton satellite is expected to return to Earth sometime between the years 2014 and 2023, depending on solar activity. It will have a fiery end… burning out like the superstar that it was. To celebrate its career, the scientific community will hold a special session on RXTE during the 219th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Austin, Texas. The session is scheduled for Tuesday, January 10, at 3 p.m. CST. A press conference on new RXTE results will also be held at the meeting on January 10 at 1:45 p.m. EST. The decision to decommission RXTE followed the recommendations of a 2010 review board tasked to evaluate and rank each of NASA’s operating astrophysics missions. “After two days we listened to verify that none of the systems we turned off had autonomously re-activated, and we’ve heard nothing,” said Deborah Knapp, RXTE mission director at Goddard.

On the contrary… We heard a lot from Rossi!

Original Story Source: NASA News Release.