Taking the pulse of a supermassive black hole

December 5, 2013
This artist's concept depicts a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy. Credit: NASA

(Phys.org) —Rare heartbeat-like pulsations detected from a supermassive black hole may grant scientists better insight into these exotic objects, according to two University of Alabama astronomers who co-authored a recent scientific article on the discovery.

Drs. Dacheng Lin, a post-doctoral researcher, and Jimmy Irwin, an assistant professor in UA's physics and astronomy department, co-wrote, along with three French scientists, an article about this black hole, with a mass about 100,000 times that of the sun, that published in a recent issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

"Such signals from supermassive black holes are very important for understanding the link between black holes across mass scale, but they have proved very difficult to find," Lin said. "Only two cases were discovered before, and our signal is five times stronger than those two cases."

The scientists used data provided by the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton space observatory in their analysis. This black hole is 1.7 billion light years away from Earth at the center of a distant galaxy, the UA scientists said.

The black hole, at the time of observation, was "eating" matter at near the maximum rate, Lin said. The UA scientists have requested additional observation time by XMM-Newton in an attempt to better understand why this black hole is eating so much matter.

"One interesting possibility is a nearby star happened to be wandering too closely to the black hole," Lin said, "so the star is torn apart by the black hole and a lot of gas becomes available to fall onto the black hole."

The origin of the pulsation, or "quasi-periodic X-ray oscillation" as scientists refer to it, is difficult to identify, Lin said. One explanation is that as the matter falls toward the black hole, a flattened disk forms. The disk produces high-energy X-rays. As the disc structure changes cyclically due to eating so much matter, so does the intensity of the X-rays streaming from it.

"Such oscillations are common in black holes with masses less than 20 times that of the sun, but are rarely seen in supermassive ," Lin said. "Black holes are one of the most exotic objects in the universe, and it is so compact and the gravity around it so strong that many interesting physical phenomena, such as the heartbeat-like X-ray signal discovered here, can happen."

The discovery published in the Oct. 10 edition.

Explore further: Capturing black hole spin could further understanding of galaxy growth

Related Stories

A link between black holes and new stars

October 23, 2013

Supermassive black holes (those with millions to billions of solar-masses) are thought to reside at the centers of most galaxies. These black holes must have undergone periods of intense accretion activity to grow to their ...

New type of black-hole quasar discovered

November 8, 2013

(Phys.org) —Like our Milky Way, every known large galaxy has at its center a supermassive black hole, some of which are surrounded by a super-bright disk of hot gas called a quasar—but now a research team that includes ...

The search for medium-sized black holes

November 27, 2013

Black holes can be petite, with masses only about 10 times that of our sun—or monstrous, boasting the equivalent in mass up to 10 billion suns. Do black holes also come in size medium? NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope ...

Fast, furious, refined: Smaller black holes can eat plenty

November 27, 2013

(Phys.org) —Gemini observations support an unexpected discovery in the galaxy Messier 101. A relatively small black hole (20-30 times the mass of our Sun) can sustain a hugely voracious appetite while consuming material ...

Recommended for you

Distant planet's interior chemistry may differ from our own

September 1, 2015

As astronomers continue finding new rocky planets around distant stars, high-pressure physicists are considering what the interiors of those planets might be like and how their chemistry could differ from that found on Earth. ...

New Horizons team selects potential Kuiper Belt flyby target

August 29, 2015

NASA has selected the potential next destination for the New Horizons mission to visit after its historic July 14 flyby of the Pluto system. The destination is a small Kuiper Belt object (KBO) known as 2014 MU69 that orbits ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.