Astronomers have solved the mystery of why this black hole has the hiccups

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graphic of hiccuping black hole
Enlarge / Scientists have found a large black hole that “hiccups,” giving off plumes of gas.

Jose-Luis Olivares, MIT

In December 2020, astronomers spotted an unusual burst of light in a galaxy roughly 848 million light-years away—a region with a supermassive black hole at the center that had been largely quiet until then. The energy of the burst mysteriously dipped about every 8.5 days before the black hole settled back down, akin to having a case of celestial hiccups.

Now scientists think they’ve figured out the reason for this unusual behavior. The supermassive black hole is orbited by a smaller black hole that periodically punches through the larger object’s accretion disk during its travels, releasing a plume of gas. This suggests that black hole accretion disks might not be as uniform as astronomers thought, according to a new paper published in the journal Science Advances.

Co-author Dheeraj “DJ” Pasham of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space research noticed the community alert that went out after the All Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae (ASAS-SN) detected the flare, dubbed ASASSN-20qc. He was intrigued and still had some allotted time on the X-ray telescope, called NICER (the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer) on board the International Space Station. He directed the telescope to the galaxy of interest and gathered about four months of data, after which the flare faded.

Pasham noticed a strange pattern as he analyzed that four months’ worth of data. The bursts of energy dipped every 8.5 days in the X-ray regime, much like a star’s brightness can briefly dim whenever an orbiting planet crosses in front. Pasham was puzzled as to what kind of object could cause a similar effect in an entire galaxy. That’s when he stumbled across a theoretical paper by Czech physicists suggesting that it was possible for a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy to have an orbiting smaller black hole; they predicted that, under the right circumstances, this could produce just such a periodic effect as Pasham had observed in his X-ray data.

Computer simulation of an intermediate-mass black hole orbiting a supermassive black hole and driving periodic gas plumes that can explain the observations.

Computer simulation of an intermediate-mass black hole orbiting a supermassive black hole and driving periodic gas plumes that can explain the observations.

Petra Sukova, Astronomical Institute of the CAS

“I was super excited about this theory and immediately emailed to say, ‘I think we’re observing exactly what your theory predicted,” Pasham said. They joined forces to run simulations incorporating the data from NICER, and the results supported the theory. The black hole at the galaxy’s center is estimated to have a mass of 50 million suns. Since there was no burst before December 2020, the team thinks there was, at most, just a faint accretion disk around that black hole and a smaller orbiting black hole of between 100 to 10,000 solar masses that eluded detection because of that.

So what changed? Pasham et al. suggest that a nearby star got caught in the gravitational pull of the supermassive black hole in December 2020 and was ripped to shreds, known as a tidal disruption event (TDE). As previously reported, in a TDE, part of the shredded star’s original mass is ejected violently outward. This, in turn, can form an accretion disk around the black hole that emits powerful X-rays and visible light. The jets are one way astronomers can indirectly infer the presence of a black hole. Those outflow emissions typically occur soon after the TDE.

That seems to be what happened in the current system to cause the sudden flare in the primary supermassive black hole. Now it had a much brighter accretion disk, so when its smaller black hole partner passed through the disk, larger than usual gas plumes were emitted. As luck would have it, that plume just happened to be pointed in the direction of an observing telescope.

Astronomers have known about so-called “David and Goliath” binary black hole systems for a while, but “this is a different beast,” said Pasham. “It doesn’t fit anything that we know about these systems. We’re seeing evidence of objects going in and through the disk, at different angles, which challenges the traditional picture of a simple gaseous disk around black holes. We think there is a huge population of these systems out there.”

Science Advances, 2024. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adj8898  (About DOIs).

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