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Black hole spotted by Nasa provides new insight into evolution of mysterious space bodies

'It feels like we're on the edge of a huge breakthrough in X-ray astronomy'

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Wednesday 09 January 2019 19:40 GMT
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Scientists find 'behemoth' black hole that shouldn't exist

A recently discovered black hole has provided the clearest insight yet into how these systems consume matter, and may help scientists explore far larger phenomena playing out across the universe.

Astronomers first spotted the J1820 black hole – which lies around 10,000 light years from Earth – in March, when a burst of X-rays was detected by an instrument aboard the International Space Station.

Such outbursts are produced when material is sucked into a black hole, and the high-energy rays can be used by scientists to understand these complex systems in greater detail.

As these beams reflected off the swirling gas around the black hole, they were detected by Nasa’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) instrument.

Known as “light echoes”, these bouncing rays provided new insights into the size and shape of the environment around the black hole in a manner comparable to sonar mapping the marine landscape using sound waves.

Parts of the environment being mapped include the “accretion disc” through which the black hole sucks gas from a companion star, and a region of particles above the disc known as the corona.

Whether the burst of X-rays that follows material falling into a hole is generated by the corona or the disc has been a hot topic of debate.

Now, the data collected by the scientists and published in the journal Nature suggests the corona changing shape is linked to the outburst.

Understanding these relatively small black holes, including how and why they change shape as they consume material from nearby stars, could have big implications.

"Previously, these light echoes off the inner accretion disk were only seen in supermassive black holes, which are millions to billions of solar masses and undergo changes slowly,” said Dr Erin Kara, an astronomer at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre.

Supermassive black holes are the size of solar systems, while stellar mass black holes like J1820 are closer to the size of cities.

“Stellar black holes like J1820 have much lower masses and evolve much faster, so we can see changes play out on human time scales," said Dr Kara.

First footage offers further proof of supermassive black hole within Milky Way

Unravelling the processes by which stellar mass black holes change in a matter of weeks could help astrophysicists understand how supermassive black holes evolve across millions of years and influence the galaxies in which they sit.

"NICER's observations of J1820 have taught us something new about stellar-mass black holes and about how we might use them as analogues for studying supermassive black holes and their effects on galaxy formation," said co-author Dr Philip Uttley, an astrophysicist at the University of Amsterdam.

"We've seen four similar events in NICER's first year, and it's remarkable.

“It feels like we're on the edge of a huge breakthrough in X-ray astronomy."

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