This study examined GRS 1915+105 (GRS 1915 for short), a binary system in the Milky Way galaxy containing a black hole about 14 times more massive than the Sun that is feeding off material from a companion star.
Researchers monitored this system with Chandra and RXTE for over eight hours and saw that it pulses in X-ray light every 50 seconds. This type of rhythmic cycle resembles an electrocardiogram of a human heart, though at a slower pace. The inset to the upper left shows a Chandra image of the system, while the one to the lower right contains its \"heartbeats.\" The main graphic shows the crowded field containing GRS 1915 in optical light. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Harvard/J. Neilsen et al.; Optical: Palomar DSS2
As this material falls towards the black hole, it forms a swirling disk that emits X-rays. The black hole in GRS 1915 has been estimated to rotate at the maximum possible rate, allowing material in the inner disk to orbit very close to the black hole, at a radius only 20% larger than the event horizon, where the material travels at 50% the speed of light.
Using the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE), researchers monitored this black hole system over a period of eight hours. As they watched, GRS 1915 gave off a short, bright pulse of X-ray light approximately every 50 seconds, varying in brightness by a factor of about three. This type of rhythmic cycle closely resembles an electrocardiogram of a human heart -- though at a slower pace.
"Trying to understand the physics of this 'heartbeat state' is a little like trying to understand how a person's heart beats by watching changes in the blood flow through their veins," said Joey Neilsen, a graduate student at Harvard University, who presented these results from his dissertation at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Seattle, Wash.
It was previously known that GRS 1915 can develop such heartbeats when its mass consumption rate is very high. After monitoring it with the special combination of Chandra and RXTE, Neilsen and his collaborators realized that they could use the pulses to figure out what controls how much material the black hole consumes.
"With each beat, the black hole pumps an enormous amount of energy into its surroundings," said Neilsen. "All that energy has profound consequences for the disk, even very far from the black hole."
Changes in the X-ray spectrum observed by RXTE during each heartbeat reveal that the inner region of the disk, at only a few times the radius of the black hole's event horizon, emits enough radiation to push material away from the black hole. Eventually the disk gets so bright and so hot that it essentially disintegrates and plunges towards the black hole. Then the cycle begins again.
"This behavior is a clear and startling demonstration of the power of radiation in the fight against gravity," said co-author Ron Remillard of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "During the heartbeat state, radiation prevents the black hole from ingesting as much material as it would otherwise."
Neilsen and his colleagues estimated that the rate at which material falls onto the black hole changes by about a factor of ten during each cycle, with the maximum rate coinciding with the X-ray pulse. Between pulses, the inner part of the disk refills from material farther away from the black hole.
The astronomers also used Chandra's high-resolution spectrograph to study the effects of this heartbeat variation on regions of the disk very far from the black hole, at distances of about 100,000 to a million times the radius of the event horizon. By analyzing the Chandra spectrum, they found a very strong wind being driven away from the outer parts of the disk. The wind changed significantly in just 5 seconds, nearly 100 times faster than has ever been seen in a wind from a stellar-mass black hole.
The researchers concluded that the strong X-ray pulse from the inner disk must heat the outer disk. This heating process launches a wind, so that each new pulse drives more wind from the disk. The rate of mass expelled in this wind is remarkably high, as much as 25 times the maximum rate at which matter falls onto the black hole.
"All that energy blows away an enormous amount of matter, equivalent to one third the mass of the Moon per day! This effectively forces the black hole onto a severe diet, and we think it eventually has real consequences for the system's heartbeat," said co-author Julia Lee, associate professor in the Astronomy department at Harvard and Neilsen's thesis advisor.
This massive wind drains material from the outer disk and after a couple weeks, this depletion affects the inner disk, causing the black hole to feed much more slowly and its X-ray brightness to decrease substantially. Unable to power such strong variations in the disk and the wind, GRS 1915's 'heart' ceases to beat. This remarkable system then likely begins one of its 13 other known patterns of variation.
Neilsen is a winner of the Roger Doxsey Travel Prize, which provides graduate students within one year of receiving or receipt of their PhD a monetary prize to enable the oral presentation of their dissertation research at an AAS meeting.
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.
Megan Watzke | EurekAlert!
Study offers new theoretical approach to describing non-equilibrium phase transitions
27.04.2017 | DOE/Argonne National Laboratory
SwRI-led team discovers lull in Mars' giant impact history
26.04.2017 | Southwest Research Institute
More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.
Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...
Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.
"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...
The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.
Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...
The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...
Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.
Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...
20.04.2017 | Event News
18.04.2017 | Event News
03.04.2017 | Event News
27.04.2017 | Life Sciences
27.04.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
27.04.2017 | Earth Sciences