Chandra sees remarkable eclipse of black hole

Apr 12, 2007
Chandra sees remarkable eclipse of black hole
The large image shows an optical view of NGC 1365 from the ESO Very Large Telescope and the inset shows the Chandra X-ray Observatory view of the center of this galaxy. The bright source in the middle of the Chandra image shows the position of the supermassive black hole. During the eclipse the high energy X-rays from regions close to the black hole are blocked by dense gas clouds. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/CfA/INAF/Risaliti Optical: ESO/VLT

A remarkable eclipse of a supermassive black hole and the hot gas disk around it has been observed with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. This eclipse has allowed two key predictions about the effects of supermassive black holes to be tested.

Just as eclipses of the Sun and moon give astronomers rare opportunities to learn about those objects, an alignment in a nearby galaxy has provided a rare opportunity to investigate a supermassive black hole.

The supermassive black hole is located in NGC 1365, a galaxy 60 million light years from Earth. It contains a so called active galactic nucleus, or AGN. Scientists believe that the black hole at the center of the AGN is fed by a steady stream of material, presumably in the form of a disk. Material just about to fall into a black hole should be heated to millions of degrees before passing over the event horizon, or point of no return.

The disk of gas around the central black hole in NGC 1365 produces copious X-rays but is much too small to resolve directly with a telescope. However, the disk was eclipsed by an intervening cloud, so observation of the time taken for the disk to go in and out of eclipse allowed scientists to estimate the size of the disk.

"For years we've been struggling to confirm the size of this X-ray structure," said Guido Risaliti of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass, and the Italian Institute of Astronomy (INAF). "This serendipitous eclipse enabled us to make this breakthrough."

The Chandra team directly measured the size of the X-ray source as about seven times the distance between the Sun and the Earth. That means the source of X-rays is about 2 billion times smaller than the host galaxy and only about 10 times larger than the estimated size of the black hole's event horizon, consistent with theoretical predictions.

"Thanks to this eclipse, we were able to probe much closer to the edge of this black hole than anyone has been able to before," said co-author Martin Elvis from CfA. "Material this close in will likely cross the event horizon and disappear from the universe in about a hundred years, a blink of an eye in cosmic terms."

In addition to measuring the size of this disk of material, Risaliti and his colleagues were also able to estimate the location of the dense gas cloud that eclipsed the X-ray source and central black hole. The Chandra data show that this cloud is one hundredth of a light year from the black hole's event horizon, or 300 times closer than generally thought.

"AGN include the brightest objects in the Universe and are powerful probes of the early universe. So, it's vital to understand their basic structure," said Risaliti. "It turns out that we still have work to do to understand these monsters."

A series of six Chandra observations of NGC 1365 were made every two days over a period of two weeks in April 2006. During five of the observations, high energy X-rays from the central X-ray source were visible, but in the second one - corresponding to the eclipse - they were not.

Source: Chandra X-ray Center

Explore further: New mass map of a distant galaxy cluster is the most precise yet

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Distorting the lens

Feb 09, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- One of the most bizarre predictions of Einstein's Theory of General Relativity is the existence of back holes, objects that are so dense that not even light can escape from their gravitational ...

A new view of the energetic universe

Dec 03, 2013

The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, sees the high-energy X-rays emitted by the densest, hottest regions of the universe. The brainchild of Fiona Harrison, Caltech's Benjamin M. Rosen Professor ...

Recommended for you

Satellite galaxies put astronomers in a spin

18 hours ago

An international team of researchers, led by astronomers at the Observatoire Astronomique de Strasbourg (CNRS/Université de Strasbourg), has studied 380 galaxies and shown that their small satellite galaxies almost always ...

Video: The diversity of habitable zones and the planets

18 hours ago

The field of exoplanets has rapidly expanded from the exclusivity of exoplanet detection to include exoplanet characterization. A key step towards this characterization is the determination of which planets occupy the Habitable ...

Ultra-deep astrophoto of the Antenna Galaxies

18 hours ago

You might think the image above of the famous Antenna Galaxies was taken by a large ground-based or even a space telescope. Think again. Amateur astronomer Rolf Wahl Olsen from New Zealand compiled a total ...

The most precise measurement of an alien world's size

20 hours ago

Thanks to NASA's Kepler and Spitzer Space Telescopes, scientists have made the most precise measurement ever of the radius of a planet outside our solar system. The size of the exoplanet, dubbed Kepler-93b, ...

User comments : 0