Mysterious tiny black hole flashes like a strobe

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Image Credit: geralt via Pixabay - HDR tune by  Universal-Sci

Image Credit: geralt via Pixabay - HDR tune by Universal-Sci

An international team of astronomers filmed a small, flashing black hole in our Milky Way using unique, specialized high-speed cameras. The stellar black hole feeds on material from a nearby star and flashes hundreds of times per second. The researchers publish their findings in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters.

The research, led by John Paice (University of Southampton), used the data from two fast cameras. One of them is the HiPERCAM instrument on the Gran Telescopio Canarias (La Palma, Canary Islands). The HiPERCAM is able to study objects in visible light while the other camera (the NASA NICER observatory located onboard the international space station) is intended explicitly for x-ray light. The researchers can take more than three hundred images per second in five wavelength ranges with these cameras.

On the night of April 17, 2018, the researchers looked at a black hole/star duo, MAXI J1820 + 070. The duo, also called an X-ray double, is located about 10,000 light-years away from earth in the direction of the constellation Leo. The objects are three times closer to us than the super heavy black hole in the center of the Milky Way. The black hole of MAXI J1820 + 070 is about seven times more massive than our sun and takes up less space than the state of Rhode Island. The black hole itself is not visible, but because it feeds on a nearby star, it can be detected by glowing streams of materials

Flickering in just a hundredth of a second

The black hole flashes so fast that it only becomes visible in slow motion. The fastest flicker lasts less than a hundredth of a second. Thanks to precision clocks on the two fast cameras, the astronomers were able for the first time to construct precisely in which order the most rapid flashes occur. Using this method, astronomers were able to determine that the X-rays originate near the core of the black hole. The radiation is probably generated by material that falls into the black hole.

Consequently, as a reaction, plasma jets shoot out of the black hole and collide with gas and other materials. These collisions create visible light scientists thus learned that light originates from the more remote areas around the black hole.

Thanks to the precision measurements, the researchers were able to map the various areas around the black hole in detail for the first time, which is vital for the development of astrophysical models. These models can then be compared with observations of other black holes, such as the famous black hole at the core of M87

An image of the core of M87 showing the shadow of its black hole  - Image Credit:  EHT Collaboration via

An image of the core of M87 showing the shadow of its black hole - Image Credit: EHT Collaboration via

Shrinking from 160 kilometers to only 16 kilometers in a month

MAXI J1820 + 070 has been widely studied in the past year and a half. Earlier, a team of researchers discovered that the black hole swallows enormous amounts of material from its companion, causing the halo of high-energy electrons around a black hole to shrink from 160 to 16 kilometers in just over a month.

Sources and further reading: A Black Hole X-ray Binary at ∼100 Hz: Multiwavelength Timing of MAXI J1820+070 with HiPERCAM and NICER / NOVA press release

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