New Way Supermassive Black Holes Are ‘Fed’

Supermassive black holes weigh millions to billions times more than our sun and lie at the center of most galaxies. A supermassive black hole several million times the mass of the sun is situated in the heart of our very own Milky Way.

Despite how commonplace supermassive black holes are, it remains unclear how they grow to such enormous proportions. Some black holes constantly swallow gas in their surroundings, some suddenly swallow whole stars. But neither theory independently explains how supermassive black holes can “switch on” so unexpectedly and keep growing so fast for a long period.

A new Tel Aviv University-led study published today in Nature Astronomy finds that some supermassive black holes are triggered to grow, suddenly devouring a large amount of gas in their surroundings.

In February 2017, the All Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae discovered an event known as AT 2017bgt. This event was initially believed to be a “star swallowing” event, or a “tidal disruption” event, because the radiation emitted around the black hole grew more than 50 times brighter than what had been observed in 2004.

However, after extensive observations using a multitude of telescopes, a team of researchers led by Dr. Benny Trakhtenbrot and Dr. Iair Arcavi, both of TAU’s Raymond & Beverly Sackler School of Physics and Astronomy, concluded that AT 2017bgt represented a new way of “feeding” black holes.

“The sudden brightening of AT 2017bgt was reminiscent of a tidal disruption event,” says Dr. Trakhtenbrot. “But we quickly realized that this time there was something unusual. The first clue was an additional component of light, which had never been seen in tidal disruption events.”

Dr. Arcavi, who led the data collection, adds, “We followed this event for more than a year with telescopes on Earth and in space, and what we saw did not match anything we had seen before.”

The observations matched the theoretical predictions of another member of the research team, Prof. Hagai Netzer, also of Tel Aviv University.

“We had predicted back in the 1980s that a black hole swallowing gas from its surroundings could produce the elements of light seen here,” says Prof. Netzer. “This new result is the first time the process was seen in practice.”

Astronomers from the U.S., Chile, Poland and the U.K. took part in the observations and analysis effort, which used three different space telescopes, including the new NICER telescope installed on board the International Space Station.

One of the ultraviolet images obtained during the data acquisition frenzy turned out to be the millionth image taken by the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory — an event celebrated by NASA, which operates this space mission.

The research team identified two additional recently reported events of black holes “switched on,” which share the same emission properties as AT 2017bgt. These three events form a new and tantalizing class of black hole re-activation.

“We are not yet sure about the cause of this dramatic and sudden enhancement in the black holes’ feeding rate,” concludes Dr. Trakhtenbrot. “There are many known ways to speed up the growth of giant black holes, but they typically happen during much longer timescales.”

“We hope to detect many more such events, and to follow them with several telescopes working in tandem,” says Dr. Arcavi. “This is the only way to complete our picture of black hole growth, to understand what speeds it up, and perhaps finally solve the mystery of how these giant monsters form.”

The Orderly Chaos Of Black Holes

During the formation of a black hole a bright burst of very energetic light in the form of gamma-rays is produced, these events are called gamma-ray bursts. The physics behind this phenomenon includes many of the least understood fields within physics today: general gravity, extreme temperatures and acceleration of particles far beyond the energy of the most powerful particle accelerators on Earth. In order to analyse these gamma-ray bursts, researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), in collaboration with the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) of Villigen, Switzerland, the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing and the National Center for Nuclear Research of Swierk in Poland, have built the POLAR instrument, sent in 2016 to the Chinese Tiangong-2 space laboratory, to analyze gamma-ray bursts. Contrary to the theories developed, the first results of POLAR reveal that the high energy photons coming from gamma-ray bursts are neither completely chaotic, nor completely organized, but a mixture of the two: within short time slices, the photons are found to oscillate in the same direction, but the oscillation direction changes with time. These unexpected results are reported in a recent issue of the journal Nature Astronomy.

When two neutron stars collide or a super massive star collapses into itself, a black hole is created. This birth is accompanied by a bright burst of gamma-rays — very energetic light such as that emitted by radioactive sources — called a gamma-ray burst (GRB).

Is black hole birth environment organized or chaotic?

How and where the gamma-rays are produced is still a mystery, two different schools of thought on their origin exist. The first predicts that photons from GRBs are polarized, meaning the majority of them oscillate in the same direction. If this were the case, the source of the photons would likely be a strong and well organized magnetic field formed during the violent aftermath of the black hole production. A second theory suggests that the photons are not polarized, implying a more chaotic emission environment. But how to check this?

“Our international teams have built together the first powerful and dedicated detector, called POLAR, capable of measuring the polarization of gamma-rays from GRBs. This instrument allows us to learn more about their source,” said Xin Wu, professor in the Department of Nuclear and Particle Physics of the Faculty of Sciences of UNIGE. Its operating system is rather simple. It is a square of 50×50 cm2 consisting of 1600 scintillator bars in which the gamma-rays collide with the atoms that make up these bars. When a photon collides in a bar we can measure it, afterwards it can produce a second photon which can cause a second visible collision. “If the photons are polarized, we observe a directional dependency between the impact positions of the photons, continues Nicolas Produit, researcher at the Department of Astronomy of the Faculty of Sciences of UNIGE. On the contrary, if there is no polarization, the second photon resulting from the first collision will leave in a fully random direction.”

Order within chaos

In six months, POLAR has detected 55 gamma-ray bursts and scientist analyzed the polarization of gamma-rays from the 5 brightest ones. The results are surprising to say the least. “When we analyse the polarization of a gamma-ray burst as a whole, we see at most a very weak polarization, which seems to clearly favour several theories,” says Merlin Kole, a researcher at the Department of Nuclear and Particle Physics of the Faculty of Sciences of UNIGE and one of the main authors of the paper. Faced with this first result, the scientists looked in more detail at a very powerful 9 second long gamma-ray burst and cut it into time slices, each of 2 seconds long. “There, we discovered with surprise that, on the contrary, the photons are polarized in each slice, but the oscillation direction is different in each slice!,” Xin Wu enthuses. It is this changing direction which makes the full GRB appear as very chaotic and unpolarized. “The results show that as the explosion takes place, something happens which causes the photons to be emitted with a different polarization direction, what this could be we really don’t know,” continues Merlin Kole.

These first results confront the theorists with new elements and requires them to produce more detailed predictions. “We now want to build POLAR-2, which is bigger and more precise. With that we can dig deeper into these chaotic processes, to finally discover the source of the gamma-rays and unravel the mysteries of these highly energetic physical processes,” explains Nicolas Produit.

Giant Pattern Discovered In The Clouds Of Planet Venus

A Japanese research group has identified a giant streak structure among the clouds covering planet Venus based on observation from the spacecraft Akatsuki. The team also revealed the origins of this structure using large-scale climate simulations. The group was led by Project Assistant Professor Hiroki Kashimura (Kobe University, Graduate School of Science) and these findings were published on January 9 in Nature Communications.

Venus is often called Earth’s twin because of their similar size and gravity, but the climate on Venus is very different. Venus rotates in the opposite direction to Earth, and a lot more slowly (about one rotation for 243 Earth days). Meanwhile, about 60 km above Venus’ surface a speedy east wind circles the planet in about 4 Earth days (at 360 km/h), a phenomenon known as atmospheric superrotation.

The sky of Venus is fully covered by thick clouds of sulfuric acid that are located at a height of 45-70 km, making it hard to observe the planet’s surface from Earth-based telescopes and orbiters circling Venus. Surface temperatures reach a scorching 460 degrees Celsius, a harsh environment for any observations by entry probes. Due to these conditions, there are still many unknowns regarding Venus’ atmospheric phenomena.

To solve the puzzle of Venus’ atmosphere, the Japanese spacecraft Akatsuki began its orbit of Venus in December 2015. One of the observational instruments of Akatsuki is an infrared camera “IR2” that measures wavelengths of 2 ?m (0.002 mm). This camera can capture detailed cloud morphology of the lower cloud levels, about 50 km from the surface. Optical and ultraviolet rays are blocked by the upper cloud layers, but thanks to infrared technology, dynamic structures of the lower clouds are gradually being revealed.

Before the Akatsuki mission began, the research team developed a program called AFES-Venus for calculating simulations of Venus’ atmosphere. On Earth, atmospheric phenomena on every scale are researched and predicted using numerical simulations, from the daily weather forecast and typhoon reports to anticipated climate change arising from global warming. For Venus, the difficulty of observation makes numerical simulations even more important, but this same issue also makes it hard to confirm the accuracy of the simulations.

AFES-Venus had already succeeded in reproducing superrotational winds and polar temperature structures of the Venus atmosphere. Using the Earth Simulator, a supercomputer system provided by the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC), the research team created numerical simulations at a high spatial resolution. However, because of the low quality of observational data before Akatsuki, it was hard to prove whether these simulations were accurate reconstructions.

This study compared detailed observational data of the lower cloud levels of Venus taken by Akatsuki’s IR2 camera with the high-resolution simulations from the AFES-Venus program. The left part of the image above shows the lower cloud levels of Venus captured by the IR2 camera. Note the almost symmetrical giant streaks across the northern and southern hemispheres. Each streak is hundreds of kilometers wide and stretches diagonally almost 10,000 kilometers across. This pattern was revealed for the first time by the IR2 camera, and the team have named it a planetary-scale streak structure. This scale of streak structure has never been observed on Earth, and could be a phenomenon unique to Venus. Using the AFES-Venus high-resolution simulations, the team reconstructed the pattern (right-hand side of above image). The similarity between this structure and the camera observations prove the accuracy of the AFES-Venus simulations.

Next, through detailed analyses of the AFES-Venus simulation results, the team revealed the origin of this giant streak structure. The key to this structure is a phenomenon closely connected to Earth’s everyday weather: polar jet streams. In mid and high latitudes of Earth, a large-scale dynamics of winds (baroclinic instability) forms extratropical cyclones, migratory high-pressure systems, and polar jet streams. The results of the simulations showed the same mechanism at work in the cloud layers of Venus, suggesting that jet streams may be formed at high latitudes. At lower latitudes, an atmospheric wave due to the distribution of large-scale flows and the planetary rotation effect (Rossby wave) generates large vortexes across the equator to latitudes of 60 degrees in both directions. When jet streams are added to this phenomenon, the vortexes tilt and stretch, and the convergence zone between the north and south winds forms as a streak. The north-south wind that is pushed out by the convergence zone becomes a strong downward flow, resulting in the planetary-scale streak structure. The Rossby wave also combines with a large atmospheric fluctuation located over the equator (equatorial Kelvin wave) in the lower cloud levels, preserving the symmetry between hemispheres.

This study revealed the giant streak structure on the planetary scale in the lower cloud levels of Venus, replicated this structure with simulations, and suggested that this streak structure is formed from two types of atmospheric fluctuations (waves), baroclinic instability and jet streams. The successful simulation of the planetary-scale streak structure formed from multiple atmospheric phenomena is evidence for the accuracy of the simulations for individual phenomena calculated in this process.

Until now, studies of Venus’ climate have mainly focused on average calculations from east to west. This finding has raised the study of Venus’ climate to a new level in which discussion of the detailed three-dimensional structure of Venus is possible. The next step, through collaboration with Akatsuki and AFES-Venus, is to solve the puzzle of the climate of Earth’s twin Venus, veiled in the thick cloud of sulfuric acid.

First Evidence Of Gigantic Remains From Star Explosions

Astrophysicists have found the first ever evidence of gigantic remains being formed from repeated explosions on the surface of a dead star in the Andromeda Galaxy, 2.5 million light years from Earth. The remains or “super-remnant” measures almost 400 light years across. For comparison, it takes just 8 minutes for light from the Sun to reach us.

A white dwarf is the dead core of a star. When it is paired with a companion star in a binary system, it can potentially produce a nova explosion. If the conditions are right, the white dwarf can pull gas from its companion star and when enough material builds up on the surface of the white dwarf, it triggers a thermonuclear explosion or “nova,” shining a million times brighter than our Sun and initially moving at up to 10,000 km per second.

Astrophysicists including Dr Steven Williams from Lancaster University in the UK examined the nova M31N 2008-12a in the Andromeda Galaxy, one of our nearest neighbours.

They used Hubble Space Telescope imaging, accompanied by spectroscopy from telescopes on Earth, to help uncover the nature of a gigantic super-remnant surrounding the nova. This is the first time such a huge remnant has been associated with a nova, and their research appears in Nature.

Dr Williams worked on Liverpool Telescope observations of the nova as well as helping to interpret the results.

He said: “This result is significant, as it is the first such remnant that has been found around a nova. This nova also has the most frequent explosions of any we know — once a year. The most frequent in our own Galaxy in only once every 10 years.

“It also has potential links to Type Ia supernovae, as this is how we would expect a nova system to behave when it is nearly massive enough to explode as a supernova.”

A Type Ia supernova is caused when the entire white dwarf is blown apart when it reaches a critical upper mass, rather than an explosion on its surface as in the case of the nova in this work. Type Ia supernovae are relatively rare. We have not observed one in our own Galaxy since Kepler’s supernova of 1604, named after the famous astronomer Johannes Kepler, who observed it shortly after it exploded and for the following year.

The team simulated how such a nova can create a vast, evacuated cavity around the star, by continually sweeping up the surrounding medium within a shell at the edge of a growing super-remnant.

The models show that the super-remnant — larger than almost all known remnants of supernova explosions — is consistent with being built up by frequent nova eruptions over millions of years.

Dr Matt Darnley from Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, who led the work, said: “Studying M31N 2008-12a and its super-remnant could help us to understand how some white dwarfs grow to their critical upper mass and how they actually explode as a Type Ia Supernova once they get there. Type Ia supernovae are critical tools used to work out how the universe expands and grows.”

Astronomers Find Signatures Of A ‘Messy’ Star That Made Its Companion Go Supernova

Many stars explode as luminous supernovae when, swollen with age, they run out of fuel for nuclear fusion. But some stars can go supernova simply because they have a close and pesky companion star that, one day, perturbs its partner so much that it explodes.

These latter events can happen in binary star systems, where two stars attempt to share dominion. While the exploding star gives off lots of evidence about its identity, astronomers must engage in detective work to learn about the errant companion that triggered the explosion.

On Jan. 10 at the 2019 American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle, an international team of astronomers announced that they have identified the type of companion star that made its partner in a binary system, a carbon-oxygen white dwarf star, explode. Through repeated observations of SN 2015cp, a supernova 545 million light years away, the team detected hydrogen-rich debris that the companion star had shed prior to the explosion.

“The presence of debris means that the companion was either a red giant star or similar star that, prior to making its companion go supernova, had shed large amounts of material,” said University of Washington astronomer Melissa Graham, who presented the discovery and is lead author on the accompanying paper accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

The supernova material smacked into this stellar litter at 10 percent the speed of light, causing it to glow with ultraviolet light that was detected by the Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories nearly two years after the initial explosion. By looking for evidence of debris impacts months or years after a supernova in a binary star system, the team believes that astronomers could determine whether the companion had been a messy red giant or a relatively neat and tidy star.

The team made this discovery as part of a wider study of a particular type of supernova known as a Type Ia supernova. These occur when a carbon-oxygen white dwarf star explodes suddenly due to activity of a binary companion. Carbon-oxygen white dwarfs are small, dense and — for stars — quite stable. They form from the collapsed cores of larger stars and, if left undisturbed, can persist for billions of years.

Type Ia supernovae have been used for cosmological studies because their consistent luminosity makes them ideal “cosmic lighthouses,” according to Graham. They’ve been used to estimate the expansion rate of the universe and served as indirect evidence for the existence of dark energy.

Yet scientists are not certain what kinds of companion stars could trigger a Type Ia event. Plenty of evidence indicates that, for most Type Ia supernovae, the companion was likely another carbon-oxygen white dwarf, which would leave no hydrogen-rich debris in the aftermath. Yet theoretical models have shown that stars like red giants could also trigger a Type Ia supernova, which could leave hydrogen-rich debris that would be hit by the explosion. Out of the thousands of Type Ia supernovae studied to date, only a small fraction were later observed impacting hydrogen-rich material shed by a companion star. Prior observations of at least two Type Ia supernovae detected glowing debris months after the explosion. But scientists weren’t sure if those events were isolated occurrences, or signs that Type Ia supernovae could have many different kinds of companion stars.

“All of the science to date that has been done using Type Ia supernovae, including research on dark energy and the expansion of the universe, rests on the assumption that we know reasonably well what these ‘cosmic lighthouses’ are and how they work,” said Graham. “It is very important to understand how these events are triggered, and whether only a subset of Type Ia events should be used for certain cosmology studies.”

The team used Hubble Space Telescope observations to look for ultraviolet emissions from 70 Type Ia supernovae approximately one to three years following the initial explosion.

“By looking years after the initial event, we were searching for signs of shocked material that contained hydrogen, which would indicate that the companion was something other than another carbon-oxygen white dwarf,” said Graham.

In the case of SN 2015cp, a supernova first detected in 2015, the scientists found what they were searching for. In 2017, 686 days after the supernova exploded, Hubble picked up an ultraviolet glow of debris. This debris was far from the supernova source — at least 100 billion kilometers, or 62 billion miles, away. For reference, Pluto’s orbit takes it a maximum of 7.4 billion kilometers from our sun.

By comparing SN 2015cp to the other Type Ia supernovae in their survey, the researchers estimate that no more than 6 percent of Type Ia supernovae have such a litterbug companion. Repeated, detailed observations of other Type Ia events would help cement these estimates, Graham said.

The Hubble Space Telescope was essential for detecting the ultraviolet signature of the companion star’s debris for SN 2015cp. In the fall of 2017, the researchers arranged for additional observations of SN 2015cp by the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico, the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope and NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, among others. These data proved crucial in confirming the presence of hydrogen and are presented in a companion paper lead by Chelsea Harris, a research associate at Michigan State University.

“The discovery and follow-up of SN 2015cp’s emission really demonstrates how it takes many astronomers, and a wide variety of types of telescopes, working together to understand transient cosmic phenomena,” said Graham. “It is also a perfect example of the role of serendipity in astronomical studies: If Hubble had looked at SN 2015cp just a month or two later, we wouldn’t have seen anything.”

Graham is also a senior fellow with the UW’s DIRAC Institute and a science analyst with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, or LSST.

“In the future, as a part of its regularly scheduled observations, the LSST will automatically detect optical emissions similar to SN 2015cp — from hydrogen impacted by material from Type Ia supernovae,” said Graham said. “It’s going to make my job so much easier!”

Astronomers Observe Evolution Of A Black Hole As It Wolfs Down Stellar Material

On March 11, an instrument aboard the International Space Station detected an enormous explosion of X-ray light that grew to be six times as bright as the Crab Nebula, nearly 10,000 light years away from Earth. Scientists determined the source was a black hole caught in the midst of an outburst — an extreme phase in which a black hole can spew brilliant bursts of X-ray energy as it devours an avalanche of gas and dust from a nearby star.

Now astronomers from MIT and elsewhere have detected “echoes” within this burst of X-ray emissions, that they believe could be a clue to how black holes evolve during an outburst. In a study published today in the journal Nature, the team reports evidence that as the black hole consumes enormous amounts of stellar material, its corona — the halo of highly-energized electrons that surrounds a black hole — significantly shrinks, from an initial expanse of about 100 kilometers (about the width of Massachusetts) to a mere 10 kilometers, in just over a month.

The findings are the first evidence that the corona shrinks as a black hole feeds, or accretes. The results also suggest that it is the corona that drives a black hole’s evolution during the most extreme phase of its outburst.

“This is the first time that we’ve seen this kind of evidence that it’s the corona shrinking during this particular phase of outburst evolution,” says Jack Steiner, a research scientist in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “The corona is still pretty mysterious, and we still have a loose understanding of what it is. But we now have evidence that the thing that’s evolving in the system is the structure of the corona itself.”

Steiner’s MIT co-authors include Ronald Remillard and first author Erin Kara.

X-ray echoes

The black hole detected on March 11 was named MAXI J1820+070, for the instrument that detected it. The Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI) mission is a set of X-ray detectors installed in the Japanese Experiment Module of the International Space Station (ISS), that monitors the entire sky for X-ray outbursts and flares.

Soon after the instrument picked up the black hole’s outburst, Steiner and his colleagues started observing the event with NASA’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer, or NICER, another instrument aboard the ISS, which was designed partly by MIT, to measure the amount and timing of incoming X-ray photons.

“This boomingly bright black hole came on the scene, and it was almost completely unobscured, so we got a very pristine view of what was going on,” Steiner says.

A typical outburst can occur when a black hole sucks away enormous amounts of material from a nearby star. This material accumulates around the black hole, in a swirling vortex known as an accretion disk, which can span millions of miles across. Material in the disk that is closer to the center of the black hole spins faster, generating friction that heats up the disk.

“The gas in the center is millions of degrees in temperature,” Steiner says. “When you heat something that hot, it shines out as X-rays. This disk can undergo avalanches and pour its gas down onto the central black hole at about a Mount Everest’s worth of gas per second. And that’s when it goes into outburst, which usually lasts about a year.”

Scientists have previously observed that X-ray photons emitted by the accretion disk can ping-pong off high-energy electrons in a black hole’s corona. Steiner says some of these photons can scatter “out to infinity,” while others scatter back onto the accretion disk as higher-energy X-rays.

By using NICER, the team was able to collect extremely precise measurements of both the energy and timing of X-ray photons throughout the black hole’s outburst. Crucially, they picked up “echoes,” or lags between low-energy photons (those that may have initially been emitted by the accretion disk) and high-energy photons (the X-rays that likely had interacted with the corona’s electrons). Over the course of a month, the researchers observed that the length of these lags decreased significantly, indicating that the distance between the corona and the accretion disk was also shrinking. But was it the disk or the corona that was shifting in?

To answer this, the researchers measured a signature that astronomers know as the “iron line” — a feature that is emitted by the iron atoms in an accretion disk only when they are energized, such as by the reflection of X-ray photons off a corona’s electrons. Iron, therefore, can measure the inner boundary of an accretion disk.

When the researchers measured the iron line throughout the outburst, they found no measurable change, suggesting that the disk itself was not shifting in shape, but remaining relatively stable. Together with the evidence of a diminishing X-ray lag, they concluded that it must be the corona that was changing, and shrinking as a result of the black hole’s outburst.

“We see that the corona starts off as this bloated, 100-kilometer blob inside the inner accretion disk, then shrinks down to something like 10 kilometers, over about a month,” Steiner says. “This is the first unambiguous case of a corona shrinking while the disk is stable.”

“NICER has allowed us to measure light echoes closer to a stellar-mass black hole than ever before,” Kara adds. “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 evolve over millions of years. Stellar black holes like J1820 have much lower masses and evolve much faster, so we can see changes play out on human time scales.”

While it’s unclear what is exactly causing the corona to contract, Steiner speculates that the cloud of high-energy electrons is being squeezed by the overwhelming pressure generated by the accretion disk’s in-falling avalanche of gas.

The findings offer new insights into an important phase of a black hole’s outburst, known as a transition from a hard to a soft state. Scientists have known that at some point early on in an outburst, a black hole shifts from a “hard” phase that is dominated by the corona’s energy, to a “soft” phase that is ruled more by the accretion disk’s emissions.

“This transition marks a fundamental change in a black hole’s mode of accretion,” Steiner says. “But we don’t know exactly what’s going on. How does a black hole transition from being dominated by a corona to its disk? Does the disk move in and take over, or does the corona change and dissipate in some way? This is something people have been trying to unravel for decades And now this is a definitive piece of work in regards to what’s happening in this transition phase, and that what’s changing is the corona.”

This research is supported, in part, by NASA through the NICER mission and the Astrophysics Explorers Program.

X-Ray Pulse Detected Near Event Horizon As Black Hole Devours Star

On Nov. 22, 2014, astronomers spotted a rare event in the night sky: A supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy, nearly 300 million light years from Earth, ripping apart a passing star. The event, known as a tidal disruption flare, for the black hole’s massive tidal pull that tears a star apart, created a burst of X-ray activity near the center of the galaxy. Since then, a host of observatories have trained their sights on the event, in hopes of learning more about how black holes feed.

Now researchers at MIT and elsewhere have pored through data from multiple telescopes’ observations of the event, and discovered a curiously intense, stable, and periodic pulse, or signal, of X-rays, across all datasets. The signal appears to emanate from an area very close to the black hole’s event horizon — the point beyond which material is swallowed inescapably by the black hole. The signal appears to periodically brighten and fade every 131 seconds, and persists over at least 450 days.

The researchers believe that whatever is emitting the periodic signal must be orbiting the black hole, just outside the event horizon, near the Innermost Stable Circular Orbit, or ISCO — the smallest orbit in which a particle can safely travel around a black hole.

Given the signal’s stable proximity to the black hole, and the black hole’s mass, which researchers previously estimated to be about 1 million times that of the sun, the team has calculated that the black hole is spinning at about 50 percent the speed of light.

The findings, reported today in the journal Science, are the first demonstration of a tidal disruption flare being used to estimate a black hole’s spin.

The study’s first author, Dheeraj Pasham, a postdoc in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, says that most supermassive black holes are dormant and don’t usually emit much in the way of X-ray radiation. Only occasionally will they release a burst of activity, such as when stars get close enough for black holes to devour them. Now he says that, given the team’s results, such tidal disruption flares can be used to estimate the spin of supermassive black holes — a characteristic that has been, up until now, incredibly tricky to pin down.

“Events where black holes shred stars that come too close to them could help us map out the spins of several supermassive black holes that are dormant and otherwise hidden at the centers of galaxies,” Pasham says. “This could ultimately help us understand how galaxies evolved over cosmic time.”

Pasham’s co-authors include Ronald Remillard, Jeroen Homan, Deepto Chakrabarty, Frederick Baganoff, and James Steiner of MIT; Alessia Franchini at the University of Nevada; Chris Fragile of the College of Charleston; Nicholas Stone of Columbia University; Eric Coughlin of the University of California at Berkeley; and Nishanth Pasham, of Sunnyvale, California.

A real signal

Theoretical models of tidal disruption flares show that when a black hole shreds a star apart, some of that star’s material may stay outside the event horizon, circling, at least temporarily, in a stable orbit such as the ISCO, and giving off periodic flashes of X-rays before ultimately being fed by the black hole. The periodicity of the X-ray flashes thus encodes key information about the size of the ISCO, which itself is dictated by how fast the black hole is spinning.

Pasham and his colleagues thought that if they could see such regular flashes very close to a black hole that had undergone a recent tidal disruption event, these signals could give them an idea of how fast the black hole was spinning.

They focused their search on ASASSN-14li, the tidal disruption event that astronomers identified in November 2014, using the ground-based All-Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae (ASASSN).

“This system is exciting because we think it’s a poster child for tidal disruption flares,” Pasham says. “This particular event seems to match many of the theoretical predictions.”

The team looked through archived datasets from three observatories that collected X-ray measurements of the event since its discovery: the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton space observatory, and NASA’s space-based Chandra and Swift observatories. Pasham previously developed a computer code to detect periodic patterns in astrophysical data, though not for tidal disruption events specifically. He decided to apply his code to the three datasets for ASASSN-14li, to see if any common periodic patterns would rise to the surface.

What he observed was a surprisingly strong, stable, and periodic burst of X-ray radiation that appeared to come from very close to the edge of the black hole. The signal pulsed every 131 seconds, over 450 days, and was extremely intense — about 40 percent above the black hole’s average X-ray brightness.

“At first I didn’t believe it because the signal was so strong,” Pasham says. “But we saw it in all three telescopes. So in the end, the signal was real.”

Based on the properties of the signal, and the mass and size of the black hole, the team estimated that the black hole is spinning at least at 50 percent the speed of light.

“That’s not super fast — there are other black holes with spins estimated to be near 99 percent the speed of light,” Pasham says. “But this is the first time we’re able to use tidal disruption flares to constrain the spins of supermassive black holes.”

Illuminating the invisible

Once Pasham discovered the periodic signal, it was up to the theorists on the team to find an explanation for what may have generated it. The team came up with various scenarios, but the one that seems the most likely to generate such a strong, regular X-ray flare involves not just a black hole shredding a passing star, but also a smaller type of star, known as a white dwarf, orbiting close to the black hole.

Such a white dwarf may have been circling the supermassive black hole, at ISCO — the innermost stable circular orbit — for some time. Alone, it would not have been enough to emit any sort of detectable radiation. For all intents and purposes, the white dwarf would have been invisible to telescopes as it circled the relatively inactive, spinning black hole.

Sometime around Nov. 22, 2014, a second star passed close enough to the system that the black hole tore it apart in a tidal disruption flare that emitted an enormous amount of X-ray radiation, in the form of hot, shredded stellar material. As the black hole pulled this material inward, some of the stellar debris fell into the black hole, while some remained just outside, in the innermost stable orbit — the very same orbit in which the white dwarf circled. As the white dwarf came in contact with this hot stellar material, it likely dragged it along as a luminous overcoat of sorts, illuminating the white dwarf in an intense amount of X-rays each time it circled the black hole, every 131 seconds.

The scientists admit that such a scenario would be incredibly rare and would only last for several hundred years at most — a blink of an eye in cosmic scales. The chances of detecting such a scenario would be exceedingly slim.

“The problem with this scenario is that, if you have a black hole with a mass that’s 1 million times that of the sun, and a white dwarf is circling it, then at some point over just a few hundred years, the white dwarf will plunge into the black hole,” Pasham says. “We would’ve been extremely lucky to find such a system. But at least in terms of the properties of the system, this scenario seems to work.”

The results’ overarching significance is that they show it is possible to constrain the spin of a black hole, from tidal disruption events, according to Pasham. Going forward, he hopes to identify similar stable patterns in other star-shredding events, from black holes that reside further back in space and time.

“In the next decade, we hope to detect more of these events,” Pasham says. “Estimating spins of several black holes from the beginning of time to now would be valuable in terms of estimating whether there is a relationship between the spin and the age of black holes.”

This research was supported, in part, by NASA.