NASA and ISA's new space observatory helps solve mystery of supermassive black holes

    Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) launched last December as a collaboration between the U.S. space agency NASA and the Italian Space Agency.
    By: REUTERS
    | Updated on: Nov 24 2022, 23:32 IST
    Terror in the sky! Black Hole found CLOSE to Earth; it is 10 times BIGGER than Sun
    Black hole
    1/5 The black hole that is closest to planet Earth has been found by astronomers utilising the International Gemini Observatory, run by the NOIRLab of the NSF. And it is terrifying! It is not only massive, but it is also close to Earth! "It has been confirmed that a dormant stellar-mass black hole exists in the Milky Way for the first time. With only 1600 light-years between it and Earth, it is a fascinating subject for research to improve our knowledge of the development of binary systems," a report by ANI said. (AFP)
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    2/5 The closest black hole to Earth has been named Gaia BH1 by astronomers. It is three times closer to Earth than the previous record-holder, an X-ray pair in the constellation of the Monoceros. This dormant black hole is around 10 times as big as the Sun and is situated about 1600 light-years away in the constellation Ophiuchus. (Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration)
    Black hole
    3/5 The most extreme things in the universe are black holes. All huge galaxies presumably have supermassive versions of these unfathomably dense objects at their centres. There are an estimated 100 million stellar-mass black holes in the Milky Way alone, which are significantly more prevalent and weigh five to one hundred times as much as the Sun. (NASA)
    black hole
    4/5 What is a Black Hole? According to NASA, a black hole is an astronomical object with a gravitational pull so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape it. A black hole’s “surface,” called its event horizon, defines the boundary where the velocity needed to escape exceeds the speed of light, which is the speed limit of the cosmos. Matter and radiation fall in, but they can’t get out. (NASA)
    Black Hole
    5/5 Formation of Black Hole: A stellar-mass black hole formation happens when a star with more than 20 solar masses (1 solar mass is the mass of our sun) exhausts the nuclear fuel in its core and collapses under its own weight. The collapse triggers a supernova explosion that blows off the star’s outer layers. But if the crushed core contains more than about three times the Sun’s mass, no known force can stop its collapse into itself and the birth of a black hole. The origin of supermassive black holes is poorly understood, but we know they exist from the very earliest days of a galaxy’s lifetime. Once born, black holes can grow by accreting matter that falls into them, including gas stripped from neighboring stars and even other black holes. (NASA)
    Blazar
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    Blazars are a subset of objects called quasars that are powered by supermassive black holes feeding on gas and other material at the center of galaxies. (NASA)

    Most galaxies are built around humongous black holes. While many of these are comparatively docile, like the one at our Milky Way's center, some are fierce - guzzling surrounding material and unleashing huge and blazingly bright jets of high-energy particles far into space.

    Using data from the recently deployed Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) orbiting observatory, researchers on Wednesday offered an explanation for how these jets become so luminous: subatomic particles called electrons becoming energized by shock waves moving at supersonic speed away from the black hole.

    The researchers studied an exotic object called a blazar at the center of a large elliptical galaxy named Markarian 501 located about 460 million light years away from Earth in the direction of the constellation Hercules. A light year is the distance light travels in a year, 5.9 trillion miles (9.5 trillion km).

    Blazars are a subset of objects called quasars that are powered by supermassive black holes feeding on gas and other material at the center of galaxies and sending two jets of particles in opposite directions into space. Blazars are oriented such that one of their two jets from our vantage point on Earth is heading directly at us.

    "Blazars are the most persistently bright objects in the observable universe. They are the most energetic. They have the biggest, scariest black holes. Everything that happens around them is so fascinating," said astronomer Yannis Liodakis of the Finnish Centre for Astronomy with ESO, lead author of the research published in the journal Nature.

    Scientists have long sought to understand how the jets launched from blazars become so luminous and the behavior of the particles in them. The jets from this blazar extend to a distance of about a million light years.

    IXPE, launched last December as a collaboration between the U.S. space agency NASA and the Italian Space Agency, measures the brightness and polarization - a property of light involving the orientation of the electromagnetic waves - of X-ray light from cosmic sources. Different phenomena, like shock waves or turbulence, present polarization "signatures."

    The researchers found evidence that particles in the jet become energized when hit with a shock wave propagating outward inside the stream and emit X-rays as they accelerate. A shock wave is produced when something moves faster than the speed of sound through a medium like air - as a supersonic jet does as it flies through Earth's atmosphere - or a region with particles and magnetic fields called a plasma, as in this case.

    "The light that we see from the jets comes from electrons," said Boston University astrophysicist and study co-author Alan Marscher. "X-rays of the type that we observe in Markarian 501 can only come from extremely high-energy electrons."

    The driving force behind this drama is a black hole, an extraordinarily dense object with gravity so powerful that not even light can escape. The supermassive black hole at the center of Markarian 501 has a mass somewhere around a billion times the mass of our sun. That is about 200 times larger than the mass of Sagittarius A*, the Milky Way's supermassive black hole.

    "Black holes are unique laboratories to study fundamental physics in extreme conditions we cannot replicate on Earth," Liodakis said.

    "However, before we can use them as such, we need to understand all the physical processes that take place. For many years we would observe high-energy light from those sources and had a few theories how the particles that emit that light would be energized. The X-ray polarization capabilities of IXPE allowed us for the first time to directly test our theories," Liodakis said.

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    First Published Date: 24 Nov, 23:32 IST
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