Black Holes

Shredded Star Leads to Important Black Hole Discovery

Illustration of ASASSN14-li
Illustration of ASASSN-14li
Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

This artist's illustration shows the region around a supermassive black hole after a star wandered too close and was ripped apart by extreme gravitational forces. Some of the remains of the star are pulled into an X-ray-bright disk where they circle the black hole before passing over the "event horizon," the boundary beyond which nothing, including light, can escape. The elongated spot depicts a bright region in the disk, which causes a regular variation in the X-ray brightness of the source, allowing the spin rate of the black hole to be estimated. The curved region in the upper left shows where light from the other side of the disk has been curved over the top of the black hole.

This event was first detected by a network of optical telescopes called the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASASSN) in November 2014. Astronomers dubbed the new source ASASSN14-li and traced the bright flash of light to a galaxy about 290 million light years from Earth. They also identified it as a "tidal disruption" event, where one cosmic object is shredded by another through gravity.

Cosmic Fountain Powered by Giant Black Hole

Image of Abell 2597
Abell 2597
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/G. Tremblay et al; Radio:ALMA: ESO/NAOJ/NRAO/G.Tremblay et al, NRAO/AUI/NSF/B.Saxton; Optical: ESO/VLT

Before electrical power became available, water fountains worked by relying on gravity to channel water from a higher elevation to a lower one. This water could then be redirected to shoot out of the fountain and create a centerpiece for people to admire.

In space, awesome gaseous fountains have been discovered in the centers of galaxy clusters. One such fountain is in the cluster Abell 2597. There, vast amounts of gas fall toward a supermassive black hole, where a combination of gravitational and electromagnetic forces sprays most of the gas away from the black hole in an ongoing cycle lasting tens of millions of years.

Scientists used data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) and NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to find the first clear evidence for the simultaneous inward and outward flow of gas being driven by a supermassive black hole.

Finding the Happy Medium of Black Holes

COSMOS Survey
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/ICE/M.Mezcua et al.;
Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Illustration: NASA/CXC/A.Hobart

This image shows data from a massive observing campaign that includes NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. These Chandra data have provided strong evidence for the existence of so-called intermediate-mass black holes (IMBHs). Combined with a separate study also using Chandra data, these results may allow astronomers to better understand how the very largest black holes in the early Universe formed, as described in our latest press release.

The COSMOS ("cosmic evolution survey") Legacy Survey has assembled data from some of the world's most powerful telescopes spanning the electromagnetic spectrum. This image contains Chandra data from this survey, equivalent to about 4.6 million seconds of observing time. The colors in this image represent different levels of X-ray energy detected by Chandra. Here the lowest-energy X-rays are red, the medium band is green, and the highest-energy X-rays observed by Chandra are blue. Most of the colored dots in this image are black holes. Data from the Spitzer Space Telescope are shown in grey. The inset shows an artist's impression of a growing black hole in the center of a galaxy. A disk of material surrounding the black hole and a jet of outflowing material are also depicted.

Star Shredded by Rare Breed of Black Hole

A team of researchers using data from ESA's XMM-Newton X-ray space observatory, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and NASA's Swift X-Ray Telescope has found evidence for the existence of an intermediate-mass black hole (IMBH).

Scientists have strong evidence for the existence of stellar black holes, which are typically five to 30 times as massive as the Sun. They have also discovered that supermassive black holes with masses as large as billions of Suns exist in the centers of most galaxies. They have long been searching for IMBHs that would exist in between these two extremes, which would contain thousands of solar masses. Thought to be seeds that will eventually grow to become supermassive, IMBHs are especially elusive, and thus very few robust candidates have ever been found.

Two Neutron Stars + Gravitational Waves = A Black Hole

Dave Pooley
Dave Pooley

It is a pleasure to welcome Dave Pooley as a guest blogger. Dave led the black hole study that is the subject of our latest press release. He is an associate professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, where he loves doing research with a cadre of amazing undergraduates on topics ranging from gravitational lensing to supermassive black holes to supernova explosions to exotic X-ray binaries to globular clusters. He lives in Austin with his wife, two (soon to be three) children, two cats, and one dog. When he’s not setting up train tracks, watching Daniel Tiger, or analyzing Chandra data, he enjoys cooking, woodworking, and all manner of whisky.

A colleague of mine at MIT once said that the minute the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) detects gravitational waves, it will be one of the most successful physics experiments ever performed, and the next minute, it will immediately become one of the most successful astronomical observatories ever operated.

He was exactly right. The direct detection of gravitational waves was a tremendous success for fundamental physics. We knew that gravitational radiation existed, but to directly detect it was huge. It was a triumph due to the meticulous and brilliant work of the hundreds of people who worked for years and years to make LIGO a success.

And immediately with that first detection, astronomers added gravitational waves to our tool belt of ways to study the universe. With just that first event, which was a merger of two black holes, we learned so much more about black holes than we previously knew. That, in turn, raised even more questions about these intriguing objects. Clearly, 60-solar-mass black holes exist. (That was news to us!) And you make them from 30-solar-mass black holes. (That was news to us too!) So 30-solar-mass black holes exist. (Even that was news to us, too!) But how do you make those? We astronomers have a few ideas, but we’re really not sure. We haven’t figured that out yet. Nature of course, already has.

Sagittarius A* Swarm: Black Hole Bounty Captured in the Milky Way Center

Astronomers have discovered evidence for thousands of black holes located near the center of our Milky Way galaxy using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.

This black hole bounty consists of stellar-mass black holes, which typically weigh between five to 30 times the mass of the Sun. These newly identified black holes were found within three light years — a relatively short distance on cosmic scales — of the supermassive black hole at our Galaxy's center known as Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*).

Theoretical studies of the dynamics of stars in galaxies have indicated that a large population of stellar mass black holes — as many as 20,000 — could drift inward over the eons and collect around Sgr A*. This recent analysis using Chandra data is the first observational evidence for such a black hole bounty.

A black hole by itself is invisible. However, a black hole — or neutron star — locked in close orbit with a star will pull gas from its companion (astronomers call these systems "X-ray binaries"). This material falls into a disk and heats up to millions of degrees and produces X-rays before disappearing into the black hole. Some of these X-ray binaries appear as point-like sources in the Chandra image.

The Billion-year Race Between Black Holes and Galaxies: Mar Mezcua

Mar Mezcua
Mar Mezcua

Mar Mezcua is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Space Sciences, in Barcelona (Spain), where she is from. She is a guest blogger today and the leading author of one of the two papers highlighted in our latest press release. aShe conducted this work last year with Prof. Julie Hlavacek Larrondo while at the University of Montreal (Canada).

Supermassive black holes (SMBHs) started to fascinate me when I was 13 years old. These monsters reside at the center of massive galaxies and are the most energetic sources in the Universe. When they are actively accreting, the surrounding matter that feeds them (or that the black hole accretes) can radiate over a trillion times as much energy as the Sun, being able even to outshine the galaxy in which they reside. This feeding, or accreted, material emits X-ray radiation that we can detect with X-ray satellites such as Chandra, while the material that is ejected from the SMBH in the form of jets also often emit at radio wavelengths. (Yes, SMBHs do not only swallow but also emit outflows of energetic particles!) It is for all the above that I pursued a career in astrophysics in order to study these powerful behemoths in detail.

My first close approach took place during my PhD, when I estimated the black holes (BH) masses of a sample of SMBHs whose radio jets had a peculiar morphology. To do this, I used the close relationships that had been recently found between the mass of SMBHs and some of their host galaxy properties, such as how much light was emitted by the central bulge or how quickly and where the stars in the bulge moved.

The finding of such correlations suggested that SMBHs and their host galaxies grow in tandem — that there is a co-evolution — implying that SMBHs somehow regulate the growth of the galaxy in which they reside. As simple as it might sound, this was an astonishing discovery of the late 90’s. SMBHs typically have masses of between one million and one billion times that of the Sun and sizes similar to that of the Solar System, this is, nearly 10,000 times smaller than the galaxy that hosts them. That’s a huge difference in size! How is it then possible that such a ‘small’ central SMBH controls the whole budget of a galaxy? SMBHs were getting more and more exciting every time, so after my PhD I kept on studying them using all tools I had available: radio, optical, infrared and X-ray observations!

The Billion-year Race Between Black Holes and Galaxies: Guang Yang

Guang Yang
Guang Yang

We welcome Guang Yang, a 4th-year Astronomy graduate student at Penn State, as a guest blogger. Guang led one of the two studies reported in our new press release about the evolution of supermassive black holes and galaxies. Before studying at Penn State, he obtained his astronomy B.S. degree at the University of Science and Technology of China.

Supermassive black holes, with masses over million times that of our sun, sit in the centers of galaxies. The evolution of these black holes and their host galaxies in the past billions of years of cosmic history is still an unsolved mystery. A prevailing idea is that black hole growth is synchronized with host-galaxy growth, i.e., the ratio between black hole and galaxy growth is constant. "What a beautiful theory," I told my advisor Prof. Niel Brandt, and colleagues Dr. Chien-Ting Chen and Dr. Fabio Vito. "But is it true?” I asked. “Has someone proved it?"

We searched large amounts of literature but did not find dedicated works proving the idea, although it is widely quoted in published papers. "Then why not prove it with observations?" said my advisor. "It can be a great thesis topic for you." I was so happy that my thesis topic was settled and I even dreamed about how our data might nicely support the theory.

We painstakingly analyzed a large amount of data in the Chandra Deep Field-South & North and COSMOS surveys. We successfully tracked the black hole and galaxy growth in the distant universe with NASA's Chandra, Hubble, Spitzer, and other observatories. The observations are so deep that we can study the evolution of black holes and their host galaxies 12 billion years in the past, when the Universe was less than 15% of its current age.

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