Black Holes

Found: Three Black Holes On Collision Course

Image of black hole triplet
SDSS J084905.51+111447.2
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/George Mason Univ./R. Pfeifle et al.; Optical: SDSS & NASA/STScI

A new study using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes provides the strongest evidence yet for a system of three supermassive black holes, as described in our latest press release. Astronomers think these triplet collisions, while extremely rare, play a critical role in how the biggest black holes grow over time.

The system is known as SDSS J084905.51+111447.2 (SDSS J0849+1114 for short) and is located a billion light years from Earth. In this graphic, X-rays from Chandra (purple) are shown in the pull-out in comparison with optical light from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (red, green, and blue) in the main panel.

Let’s Talk About Black Holes

Labeled illustration of a black hole
Credit: Illustration: ESO, ESA/Hubble, M.Kornmesser/N.Bartmann; Labels: NASA/CXC

Recently, we put out a press release about the regular dining habits of a supermassive black hole. Not only was this black hole found to be consuming material, or "eating," it was doing so regularly, about once every nine hours. While scientists had found such regular eating habits of smaller, so-called stellar mass black holes, this is the first evidence of such behavior in the black hole giants that live at the centers of galaxies.

The lead author of the result, which used data from both NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA's XMM-Newton, is Giovanni Minuitti of the Center for Astrobiology (CAB, CSIC-INTA) in Spain. Recently, he agreed to answer a series of questions about his work aimed at kids.


How would you explain a supermassive black hole to kids?

Let me start from the beginning.

Any object with mass (a planet, a star, a black hole, and even our own bodies) produces a force — gravity — attracting towards it any other body with mass. Gravity is a force that is proportional to the mass of the object that produces it, and that is stronger if you are closer. Basically, the higher the mass of the body and the closer to the body you are, the stronger the pull you feel.

Scientists Discover Black Hole Has Three Hot Meals a Day

Image of GSN 069
GSN 069
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXO/CSIC-INTA/G.Miniutti et al.; Optical: DSS

A supermassive black hole is blasting out X-rays about every nine hours, according to data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA's XMM-Newton, as described in our latest press release. This indicates that this black hole, containing about 400,000 times the mass of our Sun, is consuming significant amounts of material about three times per day.

The main panel of this graphic is a visible light image taken by the Digitized Sky Survey (DSS) around the galaxy known as GSN 069, located in the center of the image. The inset gives a time-lapse of Chandra data taken over a period of about 20 hours on February 14 and 15, 2019, centered on the X-ray source in the middle of GSN 069. The sequence runs in a loop to show that the X-ray brightness of the source changes regularly and dramatically over the Chandra observation. Three X-ray eruptions are observed. (Note that to clearly show the Chandra source is located in GSN 069, the size of the box in the center of the DSS image is about ten times larger than the Chandra field in the inset.)

Did We Finally Detect the First Heavily Obscured Quasar in the Kindergarten of the Universe?

Fabio Vito
Fabio Vito

We are very pleased to welcome Fabio Vito as our guest blogger. Vito is the first author of a paper that is the subject of our latest press release, on the discovery of a distant, cloaked black hole. He obtained his PhD in 2014 at the University of Bologna, Italy, before moving to Penn State as a postdoctoral researcher. He is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He mainly works on the properties and evolution of high-redshift AGN, with the final goal of understanding how they formed and grew in the first billion years of the Universe.

Imagine you are a teacher in a kindergarten starting the school year. You enter the classroom, but instead of finding little children, you see fully grown people — men and women — staring at you. Puzzled, you check with the principal, and they confirm that those people are supposed to be the new kindergarteners, just a handful of years old. Two things come to your mind immediately: 1) this is definitely going to be a very long school year, 2) what happened? Why are adults sitting in your kindergarten classroom?

Astrophysicists find themselves in a similar situation today. According to our theoretical knowledge, supermassive black holes (SMBHs) should grow from "seeds" with masses not larger than hundreds of thousands of solar masses. We then use the most powerful telescopes to find the most distant — both in space and in time — growing SMBHs, shining as “quasars,” about 13 billion years ago, when the Universe was just a few hundred million years old. We look for them because astronomers want to study how they grew to become the monsters that populate the older Universe, with masses of billions of solar masses. However, the SMBHs powering the quasars that we find in the kindergarten of the Universe are already fully grown! They are indeed already as massive as the most massive SMBHs in the local Universe.

Chandra and the Event Horizon Telescope

M87 X-ray close-up and EHT black hole image
Chandra X-ray Close-up of the Core of M87, EHT Image of Black Hole
Credit, X-ray: NASA/CXC/Villanova University/J. Neilsen, Radio: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

There are a lot of clichés that get thrown around when talking about big scientific discoveries. Words like “breakthrough” or “game changing” are often used. They grab people’s attention, but it’s fairly rare that they apply.

Today’s announcement of the first image ever taken of a black hole (more precisely, of its shadow) truly rises up to that standard. By definition, nothing not even light, can escape the gravitational grasp of a black hole. This, however, is only true if you get too close, and the boundary between what can and cannot get away is called the event horizon.

This dark portrait of the event horizon was obtained of the supermassive black hole in the center of the galaxy Messier 87 (M87 for short) by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), an international collaboration whose support includes the National Science Foundation. This achievement is certainly a breakthrough, and we at NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory congratulate and applaud the hundreds of scientists, engineers, and others who worked on the Event Horizon Telescope to obtain this extraordinary result.

Giant X-ray Chimneys and Selection Effects

Illustration of Chandra spacecraft

Astronomers frequently talk about selection effects, where results can be biased because of the way that the objects in a sample are selected. For example, if distant galaxies above a certain X-ray flux – the amount of observed X-rays – are selected for a survey, the most distant objects will tend to be the most luminous, in other words producing the most X-rays.

For doing Chandra publicity we also have a bias, as we are always on the lookout for results where NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory data play a starring role. However, there are many papers where Chandra has an important supporting role instead, and other observatories are the stars. Our colleagues at the European Space Agency (ESA) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), have put out press releases on just such a result.

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.

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