X-rays Reveal a Stellar-Mass Black Hole in Andromeda

This image shows the central region of the Andromeda galaxy in X-rays, where the newly discovered ULX outshines all other sources. Image: Landessternwarte Tautenburg, XMM-Newton, MPE


An ultraluminous x-ray source (ULX) previously spotted in the neighboring Andromeda galaxy by NASA’s Chandra observatory has now been revealed to be a stellar-mass black hole, according to researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics.

The black hole was the first ULX seen in Andromeda, as well as the closest ever observed.

Ultraluminous x-ray sources are rare objects, observed in the near and distant Universe in the outer regions of galaxies. Typically only one or two ULXs are seen in any one particular galaxy — if there are any seen at all.

The large distances to ULXs makes detailed observations difficult, and so their exact causes have been hard to nail down.

This particular x-ray source was first identified in late 2009 by Chandra and was followed up with observations by Swift and Hubble. Classified by researchers at the Max Planck Institute as a low-luminosity source, it actually outshined the entire Andromeda galaxy in x-ray luminosity!

Continued observations with Chandra and ESA’s XMM-Newton showed behavior similar to known x-ray sources in our own Milky Way galaxy: actively feeding black holes.

“We were very lucky that we caught the ULX early enough to see most of its lightcurve, which showed a very similar behavior to other X-ray sources from our own galaxy,” said Wolfgang Pietsch from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. The emission decayed exponentially with a characteristic timescale of about one month, which is a common property of stellar mass X-ray binaries. “This means that the ULX in Andromeda likely contains a normal, stellar black hole swallowing material at very high rates.”

It’s estimated that the black hole is at least 13 times the mass of the Sun.

(Related: Stellar-Mass Black Hole Blows Record-Speed Winds)

Continued observations of the ULX/black hole will attempt to observe another outburst similar to the 2009 event, although if this black hole is anything like those observed in our galaxy it could be years before another such event occurs. Still, our relatively clear view of the Andromeda galaxy unobscured by intervening dust  and gas offers a chance to perhaps spot other potential x-ray sources residing there.

Read the report from the AlphaGalileo Foundation here, or on ScienceDaily here.

The first MPE team’s paper can be found here.

Staking Out A Vampire Star

These super-sharp images of the unusual vampire double star system SS Leporis were created from observations made with the VLT Interferometer at ESO’s Paranal Observatory using the PIONIER instrument. The system consists of a red giant star orbiting a hotter companion. Note that the stars have been artificially coloured to match their known temperatures. Credit: ESO/PIONIER/IPAG


How do you peer into the dark heart of a vampire star? Try combining four telescopes! At ESO’s Paranal Observatory they created a virtual telescope 130 metres across with vision 50 times sharper than the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and observed a very unusual event… the transfer of mass from one star to another. While you might assume this to be a violent action, it turns out that it’s a gradual drain. Apparently SS Leporis stands for “super slow”.

“We can now combine light from four VLT telescopes and create super-sharp images much more quickly than before,” says Nicolas Blind (IPAG, Grenoble, France), who is the lead author on the paper presenting the results, “The images are so sharp that we can not only watch the stars orbiting around each other, but also measure the size of the larger of the two stars.”

This stellar duo, cataloged as SS Leporis, are only separated by slightly more than one AU and have an orbital period of 260 days. Of the two, the more massive and cooler member expands to a size of about Mercury’s orbit. It’s this very action of being pushed closer that draws the hot companion to feed on its host – consuming almost half of its mass. Weird? You bet.

“We knew that this double star was unusual, and that material was flowing from one star to the other,” says co-author Henri Boffin, from ESO. “What we found, however, is that the way in which the mass transfer most likely took place is completely different from previous models of the process. The ‘bite’ of the vampire star is very gentle but highly effective.”

The technique of combining telescopes gives us an incredibly candid image – one which shows us the larger star isn’t quite as large as surmised. Rather than clarifying the picture, it complicates. Just how did a red giant lose matter to its companion? Researchers are guessing that rather than streaming material from one star to another, that stellar winds may have released mass – only to be collected by the companion vampire star.

“These observations have demonstrated the new snapshot imaging capability of the Very Large Telescope Interferometer. They pave the way for many further fascinating studies of interacting double stars,” concludes co-author Jean-Philippe Berger.

Where’s van Helsing when you need him?

Original Story Source: ESO Press Release For Further Reading: An Incisive Look At The Symbiotic Star SS Leoporis.