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Black Holes
X-ray Astronomy Field Guide
Black Holes
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Black Holes
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Black Holes
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1. Tour of Chandra Deep Field South
QuicktimeMPEG What happens when astronomers use Chandra to take a long look at the same patch of sky? That's the question the project known as the Chandra Deep Field-South is designed to answer. Since Chandra was launched in 1999, the telescope has repeatedly observed the same region. Today, the observing time spent looking at this region totals over 7 million seconds. That's more than 81 days!

There are many things that astronomers can learn by using Chandra to make this ultra-deep X-ray image. Perhaps first among them is what is happening with black holes in the early Universe. For example, the latest Deep Field image lets astronomers explore ideas about how supermassive black holes grew about one to two billion years after the Big Bang. Using these data, researchers showed that these black holes in the early Universe grow mostly in bursts, rather than via the slow accumulation of matter.

The researchers also detected X-rays from massive galaxies at distances up to about 12.5 billion light years from Earth. Most of the X-ray emission from the most distant galaxies likely comes from large collections of stellar-mass black holes within the galaxies. These black holes are formed from the collapse of massive stars and typically weigh a few to a few dozen times the mass of the Sun.

By combining the Chandra Deep Field with observations from other telescopes including Hubble, scientists can continue to probe some of the most important questions in astrophysics.
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(NASA/CXC/A. Hobart)

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2. Tour of Abell 3411 and Abell 3412
QuicktimeMPEG There are many extraordinary things in the Universe. For example, astronomers have found many examples of supermassive black holes erupting in powerful outbursts that can stretch for millions of miles. They have also seen galaxy clusters — the largest structures in the Universe held together by gravity — smash into one another, releasing amazing amounts of energy.

For the first time, however, astronomers have found out what happens when two of these spectacular events join forces. Abell 3411 and Abell 3412 are a pair of colliding galaxy clusters located about 2 billion light years from Earth. By combining X-rays from Chandra with data from other telescopes, astronomers were able to probe what was really happening in this remarkable system.

They found evidence that supermassive black holes have erupted within the merging clusters. At least one of these black hole eruptions has produced a tightly-wound, rotating magnetic funnel, which in turn has created a jet of high-speed and energetic particles.

These pumped up particles have then been swept up in the collision between Abell 3411 and Abell 3412, creating a cosmic double whammy. The result of all of this? The creation of a stupendous particle accelerator that produces energies far above anything that could ever be created here on Earth.
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(NASA/CXC/A. Hobart)

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3. Tour of XJ1417+52
QuicktimeMPEG Black holes come in different sizes. The largest, or supermassive, black holes can contain hundreds of thousands times the mass of the Sun up to billions of times its mass and typically reside in the centers of galaxies. Sometimes, however, astronomers find black holes in somewhat unusual places.

Take, for example, the object known as XJ1417+52. First discovered in observations from Chandra and XMM-Newton over a decade ago, this object has some interesting properties. To begin with, astronomers think this object may fall right at the boundary between supermassive black holes and the intermediate-mass category. As their name suggest, the latter class are black holes of medium size in between stellar mass black holes and supermassive ones. X-rays from both Chandra and XMM-Newton show that XJ1417+52 gave off an extraordinary amount of X-rays. This and other pieces of evidence suggest that XJ1417+52 contains about 100,000 times the mass of the Sun.

What makes this object even more interesting is its location. Rather than being in the center of its host galaxy, it is located on its northern edge. Astronomers think this could have happened when a smaller galaxy with XJ1417+52 at its center collided with a larger galaxy. Since these two galaxies are still in the process of merging, the two black holes have yet to coalesce into one bigger black hole, but may do so millions or billions of years from now.
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(NASA/CXC/A. Hobart)

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4. Tour of GRB 140903A
QuicktimeMPEG Gamma-ray bursts are some of the most powerful explosions in the Universe. As their name implies, these events produce spectacular outbursts in gamma rays and often in other types of light over time such as X-rays and optical light. By studying the details of these different types of light, astronomers try to piece together exactly what is going on with these cosmic blasts.

On September 3, 2014, instruments aboard the Swift telescope picked up a gamma-ray burst, which was dubbed GRB 140903A. About three weeks later, a team of researchers used Chandra to study the afterglow of the event in X-rays.

By combining the Chandra observations with optical data from ground-based telescopes, astronomers have determined that GRB 140903A was the merger of two neutron stars in a galaxy about 3.9 billion light years from Earth. In addition, they found evidence that the gamma-ray burst produced pencil-thin beams of radiation. Astronomers were only able to detect this event because the jets generated by the blast were pointed toward Earth.

What does this mean? The implication is that if some or all mergers like this produce these narrow beams, then astronomers may be missing a vast majority of them because they do not fall along our line of sight. This is interesting to many scientists who study these kinds of events. And since neutron star mergers are thought to be sources of gravitational waves, scientists using LIGO and other future observatories will need to know this information in order to hone their searches.
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(NASA/CXC/A. Hobart)

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5. Tour of VLA J2130+12
QuicktimeMPEG As their reputation -- and very name - suggest, black holes are black. That is, once light passes a certain threshold of a black hole, called the event horizon, it never returns. This should make them virtually impossible to find. However, astronomers have found many black holes both here in our Milky Way galaxy and beyond. How is that possible? The answer is that regions immediately surrounding the black hole are often very bright in different types of light, including X-rays. That's because the black hole's immense gravitational pull can pull material away from a companion star at a high rate. This can create a swirling disk of heated material, generate enormous jets that reach across vast distances of space, or produce other telltale signs that we can observe with modern telescopes.

But what if a black hole is just sitting in space quietly, pulling in material at an unusually slow rate? It turns out that this might be more common than astronomers thought. A new result shows that a source within our Galaxy is actually a very quiet black hole - one that was never identified before as a black hole until now. It took data from many telescopes including Chandra, Hubble and several radio observatories to piece together all of the necessary information.

A team of researchers is now very confident that this source - known as VLA J2130+12 for short - contains a black hole a few times the mass of the Sun. This result suggests that the Milky Way galaxy could have thousands or even millions of these silent black holes. To find out if this is the case, astronomers will be looking to find them.
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(NASA/CXC/A. Hobart)

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6. Tour of Black Hole Seeds
QuicktimeMPEG Astronomers have long tried to determine just how supermassive black holes, those with millions or even billions of times the mass of the Sun in the centers of nearly all large galaxies, first formed. A conundrum arises because some of these supermassive black holes have been found less than a billion years after the Big Bang. How could such giant objects have formed so quickly?

New research using data from three of NASA's Great Observatories - Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer - may help answer this important question. By developing a sophisticated computer model and new techniques to search large databases, a team of astronomers came up with a novel way to look for some of the Universe's earliest supermassive black holes. Their method targeted objects that matched the properties of one proposed mechanism to form these black holes: direct collapse. In this scenario, supermassive black holes would have formed directly from the collapse of a cloud of gas, producing a black hole of about 10,000 times the mass of the Sun. There is a competing theory where a massive star collapses to produce a black hole of about 10 solar masses, which then packs on weight very quickly to get up to supermassive size.

The new results suggest that at least some of the supermassive black holes in the early Universe formed through this direct collapse method. If these findings are confirmed with other research, it could help astronomers understand how black holes were formed billions of years ago and give more insight into the early Universe itself.
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(NASA/CXC/A. Hobart)

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7. Tour of ASASSN-14li
QuicktimeMPEG When something, like a star or a planet, wanders too close to a black hole, it's usually not good news for that object. The gravitational forces of the black hole can tear apart the star or planet, creating a debris field, much of which will ultimately circle toward the black hole and pass beyond its point of no return. Astronomers call these events "tidal disruptions".

In recent years, astronomers have found evidence for multiple different cases for tidal disruption around various black holes. A newly discovered tidal disruption, however, is providing scientists with new details about exactly what happens when a black hole rips apart a star. This event, called ASASSN-14li, occurred in a galaxy about 290 million light years from Earth. This makes this the closest tidal disruption to Earth in a decade.
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(NASA/CXC/A. Hobart)

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8. Tour of SgrA
QuicktimeMPEG At the heart of the Milky Way galaxy, there is a supermassive black hole that has the mass equivalent of some four million Suns. Astronomers think that nearly every galaxy has such a black hole at its center. For reasons that scientists don't fully understand, the Milky Way's black hole - known as Sagittarius A* -- is unusually quiet compared to similarly sized black holes in other galaxies. Recently, however, there was a change in the behavior of Sagittarius A*. This was discovered thanks to a long-term monitoring campaign of the black hole by three orbiting X-ray telescopes: NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, ESA's XMM-Newton, and NASA's Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer. Since 1999, these telescopes in space have periodically observed Sagittarius A*.

While things have been relatively quiet from the black hole over most of the past decade and a half, astronomers saw an increase in flares in the middle of 2014. This was several months after scientists predicted a dusty object, called G2, would be making a close approach to the black hole. It's possible that G2 got so close that the strong gravitational pull of black hole grabbed some of its dust, sending it down toward the black hole and heating it up to temperatures where it glowed in X-rays. While the timing is intriguing, it's not an open and shut case. For example, the uptick of X-rays could be the result of a change in the strength of winds from nearby massive stars that are feeding the black hole. Astronomers will continue to observe Sagittarius A* with Chandra and other telescopes and hope that additional data will shed light on the questions surrounding our Galaxy's supermassive black hole.
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(NASA/CXC/A. Hobart)

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9. Tour of SGR 1745-2900
QuicktimeMPEG In 2013, astronomers announced they had discovered a magnetar exceptionally close to the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way using a suite of space-borne telescopes including NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Magnetars are dense, collapsed stars -- called "neutron stars" -- that possess enormously powerful magnetic fields. This magnetar, which astronomers named SGR 1745-2900, could be as close as two trillion miles from the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. While this may sound like a large distance, it is not in astronomical terms. In fact, this magnetar is by far the closest neutron star to a supermassive black hole ever discovered and is likely in its gravitational grip.

Since its discovery two years ago when it gave off a burst of X-rays, astronomers have been actively monitoring SGR 1745-2900 with Chandra and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton. A new study uses these observations to reveal that the X-ray output from SGR 1745-2900 is dropping more slowly than for other magnetars, and its surface is hotter than expected.

What is causing this unusual behavior? The researchers propose the surface of the magnetar is being bombarded by charged particles. These particles may be trapped in twisted bundles of magnetic fields. This scenario could explain both the slow decline in X-rays as well as the hotter-than-usual surface temperature of SGR 1745-2900. Scientists will continue to study SGR 1745-2900 to glean more clues about what is happening with this magnetar as it orbits our Galaxy's giant black hole.
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(NASA/CXC/April Jubett)

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10. Megaflares Shed Light On Our Black Hole
QuicktimeMPEG Our Galaxy is shaped like a whirlpool, with long strips of cosmic gas and dust swirling around the center. And like a whirlpool, objects that float too close are dragged into the center never to be seen again.

The fate of these unfortunate objects is no mystery. Lurking in the dark at the heart of our Galaxy is gigantic, hungry monster - a supermassive black hole. Supermassive black holes are famous for their ability to swallow anything – even light! But they don't just eat; they sometimes spit too!

In late 2013, an outburst (what astronomers call 'flares') was spotted blasting from the center of our Galaxy. Like many flares, it was made up of high-energy X-rays. However, this particular outburst was 400 times brighter than the X-ray output normally seen coming from this black hole!

A little more than a year later, it let off another flare, this time it was 200 times brighter than usual.

Astronomers have two theories about what could be causing these so-called "megaflares". The first idea is that the black hole's strong gravity tore apart an asteroid that strayed too close. The debris was then heated to millions of degrees before being devoured.

The other possible explanation involves the strong magnetic fields around the black hole. If these magnetic fields wobbled somehow, it could cause a large burst of X-rays. In fact, such events are seen regularly on our own Sun, we call them solar flares.

The main part of this picture shows the area around the supermassive black hole at the center of our Galaxy, called Sagittarius A* (pronounced as "SAJ-ee-TARE-ee-us A-star"). The small box shows a close up of the black hole and the giant flare from 2013.
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(NASA/CXC/April Jubett)

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