Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Fast, furious, refined: Smaller black holes can eat plenty

28.11.2013
Gemini observations support an unexpected discovery in the galaxy Messier 101.

A relatively small black hole (20-30 times the mass of our Sun) can sustain a hugely voracious appetite while consuming material in an efficient and tidy manner – something previously thought impossible.


Figure 1. Artist’s visualization of the environment around M101 ULX-1, showing a stellar-mass black hole (foreground) with accretion disk. Gas from the Wolf-Rayet star (background) feeds the black hole’s voracious appetite. Gemini Observatory/AURA artwork by Lynette Cook.


Figure 2. ULX-1 is located near a spiral arm of M101. The image for M101 is composed from X-ray (Chandra X-ray Observatory; Purple), Infrared (Spitzer Satellite; Red), Optical (Hubble Space Telescope; Yellow) and Ultraviolet (GALEX satellite; Blue).Credit: Chandra X-ray Observatory, Spitzer Satellite, Hubble Space Telescope, and GALEX Satellite.

The research also affects the long quest for elusive intermediate-mass black holes. The findings are published in the November 28, 2013, issue of the journal Nature.

The complete Nature paper can be accessed at:
http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/
nature12762
Observations of a black hole powering an energetic X-ray source in a galaxy some 22 million light-years away could change our thinking about how some black holes consume matter. The findings indicate that this particular black hole, thought to be the engine behind the X-ray source’s high-energy light output, is unexpectedly lightweight, and, despite the generous amount of dust and gas being fed to it by a massive stellar companion, it swallows this material in a surprisingly orderly fashion.

“It has elegant manners,” says research team member Stephen Justham, of the National Astronomical Observatories of China, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Such lightweights, he explains, must devour matter at close to their theoretical limits of consumption to sustain the kind of energy output observed. "We thought that when small black holes were pushed to these limits, they would not be able to maintain such refined ways of consuming matter," Justham explains. "We expected them to display more complicated behavior when eating so quickly. Apparently we were wrong."

A Surprising Twist

X-ray sources give off high- and low-energy X-rays, which astronomers call hard and soft X-rays, respectively. In what might seem like a contradiction, larger black holes tend to produce more soft X-rays, while smaller black holes tend to produce relatively more hard X-rays. This source, called M101 ULX-1, is dominated by soft X-rays, so researchers expected to find a larger black hole as its energy source.

In a surprising twist, however, the new observations made at the Gemini Observatory, and published in the November 28th issue of the journal Nature, indicate that M101 ULX-1’s black hole is on the small side, and astrophysicists don’t understand why.

In theoretical models of how matter falls into black holes and radiates energy, the soft X-rays come primarily from the accretion disk (see illustration), while hard X-rays are typically generated by a high-energy “corona” around the disk. The models show that the corona’s emission strength should increase as the rate of accretion gets closer to the theoretical limit of consumption. Interactions between the disk and corona are also expected to become more complex.

Based on the size of the black hole found in this work, the region around M101-ULX-1 should, theoretically, be dominated by hard X-rays and appear structurally more complicated. However, that isn’t the case.

“Theories have been suggested which allow such low-mass black holes to eat this quickly and shine this brightly in X-rays. But those mechanisms leave signatures in the emitted X-ray spectrum, which this system does not display,” says lead author Jifeng Liu, of the National Astronomical Observatories of China, Chinese Academy of Sciences. “Somehow this black hole, with a mass only 20-30 times the mass of our Sun, is able to eat at a rate near to its theoretical maximum while remaining relatively placid. It’s amazing. Theory now needs to somehow explain what’s going on.”

An Intermediate-mass Black Hole Dilemma

The discovery also delivers a blow to astronomers hoping to find conclusive evidence for an “intermediate-mass” black hole in M101 ULX-1. Such black holes would have masses roughly between 100 and 1000 times the mass of the Sun, placing them between normal stellar-mass black holes and the monstrous supermassive black holes that reside in the centers of galaxies. So far these objects have been frustratingly elusive, with potential candidates but no broadly-accepted detection. Ultra-luminous X-ray sources (ULXs) have been one of the main proposed hiding places for intermediate-mass black holes, and M101 ULX-1 was one of the most promising-looking contenders.

“Astronomers hoping to study these objects will now have to focus on other locations for which indirect evidence of this class of black holes has been suggested, either in the even brighter ‘hyper-luminous’ X-ray sources or inside some dense clusters of stars,” explains research team member Joel Bregman of the University of Michigan.

“Many scientists thought it was just a matter of time until we had evidence for an intermediate-mass black hole in M101 ULX-1,” says Liu. But the new Gemini findings both take away some of that hope to solve an old puzzle and adds the fresh mystery of how this stellar-mass black hole can consume matter so calmly.

To determine the mass of the black hole, the researchers used the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph at the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawai‘i to measure the motion of the companion. This star, which feeds matter to the black hole, is of the Wolf-Rayet variety. Such stars emit strong stellar winds, from which the black hole can then draw in material. This study also revealed that the black hole in M101 ULX-1 can capture more material from that stellar wind than astronomers had anticipated.

M101 ULX-1 is ultra-luminous, shining a million times more brightly than the Sun in both X-rays (from the black hole accretion disk) and in the ultraviolet (from the companion star). Co-author Paul Crowther from the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom adds, "Although this isn't the first Wolf-Rayet black hole binary ever discovered, at some 22 million light-years away, it does set a new distance record for such a system. The Wolf-Rayet star will have died in a small fraction of the time it has taken for light to reach us, so this system is now likely a double black hole binary."

“Studying objects like M101 ULX-1 in distant galaxies gives us a vastly larger sampling of the diversity of objects in our universe,” says Bregman. “It’s absolutely amazing that we have the technology to observe a star orbiting a black hole in another galaxy this far away.”

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Gemini's mission is to advance our knowledge of the Universe by providing the international Gemini Community with forefront access to the entire sky.

The Gemini Observatory is an international collaboration with two identical 8-meter telescopes. The Frederick C. Gillett Gemini Telescope is located on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i (Gemini North) and the other telescope on Cerro Pachón in central Chile (Gemini South); together the twin telescopes provide full coverage over both hemispheres of the sky. The telescopes incorporate technologies that allow large, relatively thin mirrors, under active control, to collect and focus both visible and infrared radiation from space.

The Gemini Observatory provides the astronomical communities in six partner countries with state-of-the-art astronomical facilities that allocate observing time in proportion to each country's contribution. In addition to financial support, each country also contributes significant scientific and technical resources. The national research agencies that form the Gemini partnership include: the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the Canadian National Research Council (NRC), the Chilean Comisión Nacional de Investigación Cientifica y Tecnológica (CONICYT), the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Argentinean Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación Productiva, and the Brazilian Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação. The observatory is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the NSF. The NSF also serves as the executive agency for the international partnership.

Media Contacts:

Peter Michaud
Gemini Observatory, Hilo, HI
Email: pmichaud"at"gemini.edu
Cell: (808) 936-6643
Desk: (808) 974-2510
Science Contacts:
Ji-Feng Liu
Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China
Email: jfliu"at"nao.cas.cn
Desk: +86 010 6488 8713
Stephen Justham
Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China
Email: sjustham"at"bao.ac.cn
Cell: +86 150 1100 3278
Paul Crowther
University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK
Email: Paul.crowther"at"sheffield.ac.uk
Cell: +44 (0) 7946 638474
Desk: +44 (0)114 222 4291
Joel Bregman
University of Michigan
Email: jbregman"at"umich.edu
Cell: 734-476-9338
Desk: 734-764-3441

Peter Michaud | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.gemini.edu
http://www.gemini.edu/node/12100

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht A 100-year-old physics problem has been solved at EPFL
23.06.2017 | Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

nachricht Quantum thermometer or optical refrigerator?
23.06.2017 | National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Can we see monkeys from space? Emerging technologies to map biodiversity

An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.

Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...

Im Focus: Climate satellite: Tracking methane with robust laser technology

Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.

Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...

Im Focus: How protons move through a fuel cell

Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.

As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...

Im Focus: A unique data centre for cosmological simulations

Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.

With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...

Im Focus: Scientists develop molecular thermometer for contactless measurement using infrared light

Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine

Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Plants are networkers

19.06.2017 | Event News

Digital Survival Training for Executives

13.06.2017 | Event News

Global Learning Council Summit 2017

13.06.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Quantum thermometer or optical refrigerator?

23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

A 100-year-old physics problem has been solved at EPFL

23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Equipping form with function

23.06.2017 | Information Technology

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>