Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


X-ray 'echoes' map a supermassive black hole's environs

An international team of astronomers using data from the European Space Agency's (ESA) XMM-Newton satellite has identified a long-sought X-ray "echo" that promises a new way to probe supersized black holes in distant galaxies.

Most big galaxies host a big central black hole containing millions of times the sun's mass. When matter streams toward one of these supermassive black holes, the galaxy's center lights up, emitting billions of times more energy than the sun. For years, astronomers have been monitoring such "active galactic nuclei" (AGN) to better understand what happens on the brink of a monster black hole.

This illustration compares the environment around NGC 4151's supermassive black hole with the orbits of the planets in our solar system; the planets themselves are not shown to scale. Echoes of X-ray flares detected in XMM-Newton data demonstrate that the X-ray source (blue sphere, center) is located above the black hole's accretion disk. The time lag between flares in the source and their reflection in the accretion disk places the X-ray source about four times Earth's distance from the sun.

Credit: Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

"Our analysis allows us to probe black holes through a different window. It confirms some long-held ideas about AGN and gives us a sense of what we can expect when a new generation of space-based X-ray telescopes eventually becomes available," said Abderahmen Zoghbi, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maryland at College Park (UMCP) and the study's lead author.

One of the most important tools for astronomers studying AGN is an X-ray feature known as the broad iron line, now regarded as the signature of a rotating black hole. Excited iron atoms produce characteristic X-rays with energies around 6,000 to 7,000 electron volts -- several thousand times the energy in visible light – and this emission is known as the iron K line.

Matter falling toward a black hole collects into a rotating accretion disk, where it becomes compressed and heated before eventually spilling over the black hole's event horizon, the point beyond which nothing can escape and astronomers cannot observe. A mysterious and intense X-ray source near the black hole shines onto the disk's surface layers, causing iron atoms to radiate K-line emission. The inner part of the disk is orbiting the black hole so rapidly that the effects of Einstein's relativity come into play -- most notably, how time slows down close to the black hole. These relativistic effects skew or broaden the signal in a distinctive way.

Astronomers predicted that when the X-ray source near the black hole flared, the broad iron K line would brighten after a delay corresponding to how long the X-rays took to reach and illuminate the accretion disk. Astronomers call the process relativistic reverberation. With each flare from the X-ray source, a light echo sweeps across the disk and the iron line brightens accordingly.

Unfortunately, neither ESA's XMM-Newton satellite nor NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory possess telescopes powerful enough to spot reverberations from individual flares.

he team reasoned that detecting the combined echoes from multiple flares might be possible if a sufficiently large amount of data from the right object could be analyzed. The object turned out to be the galaxy NGC 4151, which is located about 45 million light-years away in the constellation Canes Venatici. As one of the brightest AGN in X-rays, NGC 4151 has been observed extensively by XMM-Newton. Astronomers think that the galaxy's active nucleus is powered by a black hole weighing 50 million solar masses, which suggested the presence of a large accretion disk capable of producing especially long-lived and easily detectable echoes.

Since 2000, XMM-Newton has observed the galaxy with an accumulated exposure of about four days. By analyzing this data, the researchers uncovered numerous X-ray echoes, demonstrating for the first time the reality of relativistic reverberation. The findings appear in the May 8 issue of Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The team found that echoes lagged behind the AGN flares by a little more than 30 minutes. Moving at the speed of light, the X-rays associated with the echo must have traveled an additional 400 million miles -- equivalent to about four times Earth's average distance from the sun -- than those that came to us directly from the flare.

"This tells us that the mysterious X-ray source in AGN hovers at some height above the accretion disk," said co-author Chris Reynolds, a professor of astronomy at UMCP and Zoghbi's adviser. Jets of accelerated particles often are associated with AGN, and this finding meshes with recent suggestions that the X-ray source may be located near the bases of these jets.

"The data show that the earliest echo comes from the most broadened iron line emission. This originates from closest to the black hole and fits well with expectations," said co-author Andy Fabian, an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge in England.

Amazingly, the extreme environment at the heart of NGC 4151 is built on a scale comparable to our own solar system. If we replaced the sun with the black hole, the event horizon would extend less than halfway to Earth if the black hole spins rapidly; slower spin would result in a larger horizon. The X-ray source would hover above the black hole and its accretion disk at a distance similar to that between the sun and the middle of the asteroid belt.

"Teasing out the echo of X-ray light in NGC 4151 is a remarkable achievement. This work propels the science of AGN into a fundamental new area of mapping the neighborhoods of supermassive black holes," said Kimberly Weaver, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who was not involved in the study. NASA Goddard hosts the XMM-Newton Guest Observer Facility, which supports U.S. astronomers who request observing time on the satellite.

The detection of X-ray echoes in AGN provides a new way of studying black holes and their accretion disks. Astronomers envision the next generation of X-ray telescopes with collecting areas large enough to detect the echo of a single AGN flare in many different objects, thereby providing astronomers with a new tool for testing relativity and probing the immediate surroundings of massive black holes.

Francis Reddy | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht First results of NSTX-U research operations
26.10.2016 | DOE/Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

nachricht Scientists discover particles similar to Majorana fermions
25.10.2016 | Chinese Academy of Sciences Headquarters

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: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

Gene therapy shows promise for treating Niemann-Pick disease type C1

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

Solid progress in carbon capture

27.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

More VideoLinks >>>