Data from Black Hole’s Edge Provides New Test of Relativity

Last year, astronomers discovered a quiescent black hole in a distant galaxy that erupted after shredding and consuming a passing star.

Now researchers have identified a distinctive X-ray signal observed in the days following the outburst that comes from matter on the verge of falling into the black hole. This tell-tale signal, called a quasi-periodic oscillation or QPO, is a characteristic feature of the accretion disks that often surround the most compact objects in the universe — white dwarf stars, neutron stars and black holes. QPOs have been seen in many stellar-mass black holes, and there is tantalizing evidence for them in a few black holes that may have middleweight masses between 100 and 100,000 times the sun’s.

Until the new finding, QPOs had been detected around only one supermassive black hole — the type containing millions of solar masses and located at the centers of galaxies. That object is the Seyfert-type galaxy REJ 1034+396, which at a distance of 576 million light-years lies relatively nearby.

“This discovery extends our reach to the innermost edge of a black hole located billions of light-years away, which is really amazing. This gives us an opportunity to explore the nature of black holes and test Einstein’s relativity at a time when the universe was very different than it is today,” said Rubens Reis, an Einstein Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Reis led the team that uncovered the QPO signal using data from the orbiting Suzaku and XMM-Newton X-ray telescopes, a finding described in a paper published today in Science Express.

This illustration highlights the principal features of Swift J1644+57 and summarizes what astronomers have discovered about it. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

The X-ray source known as Swift J1644+57 — after its astronomical coordinates in the constellation Draco — was discovered on March 28, 2011, by NASA’s Swift satellite. It was originally assumed to be a more common type of outburst called a gamma-ray burst, but its gradual fade-out matched nothing that had been seen before. Astronomers soon converged on the idea that what they were seeing was the aftermath of a truly extraordinary event — the awakening of a distant galaxy’s dormant black hole as it shredded and gobbled up a passing star. The galaxy is so far away that light from the event had to travel 3.9 billion years before reaching Earth.

The star experienced intense tides as it reached its closest point to the black hole and was quickly torn apart. Some of its gas fell toward the black hole and formed a disk around it. The innermost part of this disk was rapidly heated to temperatures of millions of degrees, hot enough to emit X-rays. At the same time, through processes still not fully understood, oppositely directed jets perpendicular to the disk formed near the black hole. These jets blasted matter outward at velocities greater than 90 percent the speed of light along the black hole’s spin axis. One of these jets just happened to point straight at Earth.

Black Hole in the universe

Black Hole in the universe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nine days after the outburst, Reis, Strohmayer and their colleagues observed Swift J1644+57 using Suzaku, an X-ray satellite operated by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency with NASA participation. About ten days later, they then began a longer monitoring campaign using the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton observatory.

“Because matter in the jet was moving so fast and was angled nearly into our line of sight, the effects of relativity boosted its X-ray signal enough that we could catch the QPO, which otherwise would be difficult to detect at so great a distance,” said Tod Strohmayer, an astrophysicist and co-author of the study at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

As hot gas in the innermost disk spirals toward a black hole, it reaches a point astronomers refer to as the innermost stable circular orbit (ISCO). Any closer to the black hole and gas rapidly plunges into the event horizon, the point of no return. The inward spiraling gas tends to pile up around the ISCO, where it becomes tremendously heated and radiates a flood of X-rays.

The brightness of these X-rays varies in a pattern that repeats at a nearly regular interval, creating the QPO signal.

The data show that Swift J1644+57′s QPO cycled every 3.5 minutes, which places its source region between 2.2 and 5.8 million miles (4 to 9.3 million km) from the center of the black hole, the exact distance depending on how fast the black hole is rotating. To put this in perspective, the maximum distance is only about 6 times the diameter of our sun. The distance from the QPO region to the event horizon also depends on rotation speed, but for a black hole spinning at the maximum rate theory allows, the horizon is just inside the ISCO.

“QPOs send us information from the very brim of the black hole, which is where the effects of relativity become most extreme,” Reis said. “The ability to gain insight into these processes over such a vast distance is a truly beautiful result and holds great promise.” Universe Today/NASA

* Video info: On March 28, 2011, NASA’s Swift detected intense X-ray flares thought to be caused by a black hole devouring a star. In one model, illustrated here, a sun-like star on an eccentric orbit plunges too close to its galaxy’s central black hole. About half of the star’s mass feeds an accretion disk around the black hole, which in turn powers a particle jet that beams radiation toward Earth. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Conceptual Image Lab


NASA’s WISE Survey Uncovers Millions of Black Holes

Artist's concept of a dusty torus, or donut, of accreting material fueling a quasar. A quasar is an active supermassive black hole. Image credit: NASA/ESA

NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission has led to a bonanza of newfound supermassive black holes and extreme galaxies called hot DOGs, or dust-obscured galaxies. I mages from the telescope have revealed millions of dusty black hole candidates across the universe and about 1,000 even dustier objects thought to be among the brightest galaxies ever found. These powerful galaxies, which burn brightly with infrared light, are nicknamed hot DOGs.

“WISE has exposed a menagerie of hidden objects,” said Hashima Hasan, WISE program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We’ve found an asteroid dancing ahead of Earth in its orbit, the coldest star-like orbs known and now, supermassive black holes and galaxies hiding behind cloaks of dust.”

WISE scanned the whole sky twice in infrared light, completing its survey in early 2011. Like night-vision goggles probing the dark, the telescope captured millions of images of the sky. All the data from the mission have been released publicly, allowing astronomers to dig in and make new discoveries.

The latest findings are helping astronomers better understand how galaxies and the behemoth black holes at their centers grow and evolve together. For example, the giant black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, called Sagittarius A*, has 4 million times the mass of our sun and has gone through periodic feeding frenzies where material falls towards the black hole, heats up and irradiates its surroundings. Bigger central black holes, up to a billion times the mass of our sun, may even shut down star formation in galaxies.

In one study, astronomers used WISE to identify about 2.5 million actively feeding supermassive black holes across the full sky, stretching back to distances more than 10 billion light-years away. About two-thirds of these objects never had been detected before because dust blocks their visible light. WISE easily sees these monsters because their powerful, accreting black holes warm the dust, causing it to glow in infrared light.

The entire sky as mapped by WISE at infrared wavelengths is shown here, with an artist's concept of the WISE satellite superimposed. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

“We’ve got the black holes cornered,” said Daniel Stern of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., lead author of the WISE black hole study and project scientist for another NASA black-hole mission, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR). “WISE is finding them across the full sky, while NuSTAR is giving us an entirely new look at their high-energy X-ray light and learning what makes them tick.”

In two other WISE papers, researchers report finding what are among the brightest galaxies known, one of the main goals of the mission. So far, they have identified about 1,000 candidates.

These extreme objects can pour out more than 100 trillion times as much light as our sun. They are so dusty, however, that they appear only in the longest wavelengths of infrared light captured by WISE. NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope followed up on the discoveries in more detail and helped show that, in addition to hosting supermassive black holes feverishly snacking on gas and dust, these DOGs are busy churning out new stars.

“These dusty, cataclysmically forming galaxies are so rare WISE had to scan the entire sky to find them,” said Peter Eisenhardt, lead author of the paper on the first of these bright, dusty galaxies, and project scientist for WISE at JPL. “We are also seeing evidence that these record setters may have formed their black holes before the bulk of their stars. The ‘eggs’ may have come before the ‘chickens.’”

More than 100 of these objects, located about 10 billion light-years away, have been confirmed using the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, as well as the Gemini Observatory in Chile, Palomar’s 200-inch Hale telescope near San Diego, and the Multiple Mirror Telescope Observatory near Tucson, Ariz.

The WISE observations, combined with data at even longer infrared wavelengths from Caltech’s Submillimeter Observatory atop Mauna Kea, revealed that these extreme galaxies are more than twice as hot as other infrared-bright galaxies. One theory is their dust is being heated by an extremely powerful burst of activity from the supermassive black hole.

“We may be seeing a new, rare phase in the evolution of galaxies,” said Jingwen Wu of JPL, lead author of the study on the submillimeter observations. Source; NASA

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