Let’s get the obvious out of the way right up front – the Violent Blinking Black Holes would make a GREAT name for a metal band.
On the other hand, it doesn’t sound like something you want to find in your galaxy. Guess what, fellow Milky Wayans – a low mass X-ray binary black hole in our home galaxy a mere 10,000 light years away has been discovered sending out intense blinking beams of visible and X-ray light that are described as “violent,” “crackling” and “flaring.” Is this hyperbole or a true description of what black holes are really capable of?
“The HiPERCAM and NICER instruments however let the researchers record ‘movies’ of the changing light from the system at over three hundred frames per second, capturing violent ‘crackling’ and ‘flaring’ of visible and X-ray light.”
HiPERCAM and NICER are unintentionally cutesy names for the tools used by John Paice, an artist and graduate student at the University of Southampton and the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy & Astrophysics in India, to create a realistic movie of MAXI J1820+070, a black hole in the Milky Way with the mass of about seven of our Suns in a small area the size of a large city, eating its companion star with such intensity that the flares rapidly belching out of it are brighter than the star itself, with some that are “the output of a hundred Suns and more being emitted in the blink of an eye!” An obviously excited Paice describes the discovery in a new study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and summarized in a press release by the Royal Astronomical Society.
“An animation of the black hole system MAXI J1820+070, based upon observed characteristics during a rapid accretion episode in March 2018. Purple denotes X-ray radiation seen by the NICER instrument on the ISS, and the rest of the colours show visible light seen by HiPERCAM in La Palma. The video is shown at roughly 1/10th of the true speed.”
Fortunately for us, John Paice is a unique combination of artist and astronomer, so the real gift he’s given the world is not the study but an animation of MAXI J1820+070’s “rapid accretion episode” (watch the animation here). NICER is the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer on the International Space Station which looks at rotation-resolved spectroscopy of the thermal and non-thermal emissions of neutron stars in the soft (0.2–12 keV) X-ray band. HiPERCAM is the high-speed, multicolour camera, capable of taking more than 1,000 images per second, installed on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands. NICER and HiPERCAM produced images at over three hundred frames per second, which Paice “slowed down to 1/10th of actual speed to allow the most rapid flares to be discerned by the human eye” – flares that lasted only a few milliseconds yet were brighter than “the output of a hundred Suns and more.”
But wait … there’s more!
The fastest visible flashes of light occurred a fraction of a second after the X-ray flares, and the rise and fall of intensities alternated between the two. This is an indicator of the presence of distinct plasma caused by electrons being stripped from atoms – a process which occurs deep inside the black hole and is too small to see. Is this a big deal? Dr. Poshak Gandhi of University of Southampton and a co-author of the study thinks so.
“The fact that we now see this in three systems strengthens the idea that it is a unifying characteristic of such growing black holes. If true, this must be telling us something fundamental about how plasma flows around black holes operate. Our best ideas invoke a deep connection between inspiralling and outflowing bits of the plasma. But these are extreme physical conditions that we cannot replicate in Earth laboratories, and we don’t understand how nature manages this. Such data will be crucial for homing in on the correct theory.”
OK, it’s a big deal to astronomers and astrophysicists like Gandhi and Paice. It’s also a big deal to the developers of new telescopes and cameras like HiPERCAM and NICER. It should be a big deal to the rest of us because the more we understand about our universe, the better we can comprehend where we came from and where we’re going.
Unfortunately, it may be down the throat of a violent blinking black hole.