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Astronomers Catch a Jet from a Binge-eating Black Hole

In January 2012, a new X-ray source flared and rapidly brightened in the Andromeda galaxy (M31), located 2.5 million light-years away. Classified as an ultraluminous X-ray source (ULX), the object is only the second ever seen in M31 and became the target of an intense observing campaign by orbiting X-ray telescopes -- including NASA's Swift -- and radio observatories on the ground. These efforts resulted in the first detection of radio-emitting jets from a stellar-mass black hole outside our own galaxy.

A ULX is thought to be a binary system containing a black hole that is rapidly accreting gas from its stellar companion. However, to account for the brilliant high-energy output, gas must be flowing into the black hole at a rate very near a theoretical maximum, a feeding frenzy that astronomers do not yet fully understand.

As gas spirals toward a black hole, it becomes compressed and heated, eventually reaching temperatures where it emits X-rays. As the rate of matter ingested by the black hole increases, so does the X-ray brightness of the gas. At some point, the X-ray emission becomes so intense that it pushes back on the inflowing gas, theoretically capping any further increase in the black hole's accretion rate. Astronomers refer to this as the Eddington limit, after Sir Arthur Eddington, the British astrophysicist who first recognized a similar cutoff to the maximum luminosity of a star.

Black-hole binaries in our galaxy that show accretion at the Eddington limit also exhibit powerful radio-emitting jets that move near the speed of light. Although astronomers know little about the physical nature of these jets, detecting them at all would confirm that the ULX is accreting at the limit and identify it as a stellar mass black hole.

The European Space Agency's XMM-Newton observatory first detected the ULX, dubbed XMMU J004243.6+412519 after its astronomical coordinates, on Jan. 15. Middleton and a large international team then began monitoring it at X-ray energies using XMM-Newton and NASA's Swift satellite and Chandra X-ray Observatory. The scientists conducted radio observations using the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) and the continent-spanning Very Long Baseline Array, both operated by the National Science Foundation in Socorro, N.M., and the Arcminute Microkelvin Imager Large Array located at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory near Cambridge, England.

In a paper published online by the journal Nature on Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012, the scientists reveal their successful detection of intense radio emission associated with a jet moving at more than 85 percent the speed of light. VLA data reveal that the radio emission was quite variable, in one instance decreasing by a factor of two in just half an hour.

This tells astronomers that the region producing radio waves is extremely small in size -- no farther across than the distance between Jupiter and the sun.

Black holes have been conclusively detected in two varieties: "lightweight" ones created by stars and containing up to a few dozen times the sun's mass, and supermassive "heavyweights" of millions to billions of solar masses found at the centers of most big galaxies. Astronomers have debated whether many ULXs represent hard-to-find "middleweight" versions, containing hundreds to thousands of solar masses.

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More information on this topic available at:
http://www.nasa.gov/topics/universe/features/andromeda-xray.html

This image composites XMM-Newton X-ray data onto an optical view of the Andromeda galaxy; the ULX is circled. Colors in the XMM image correspond to different X-ray energies: 0.2 to 1 keV (red), 1 to 2 keV (green) and 2 to 4.5 keV (blue). Labels Inset: ESA/M. Middleton et al.; background: Bill Schoening, Vanessa Harvey/REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF    This image composites XMM-Newton X-ray data onto an optical view of the Andromeda galaxy; the ULX is circled. Colors in the XMM image correspond to different X-ray energies: 0.2 to 1 keV (red), 1 to 2 keV (green) and 2 to 4.5 keV (blue). Labels

Inset: ESA/M. Middleton et al.; background: Bill Schoening, Vanessa Harvey/REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF

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This image composites XMM-Newton X-ray data onto an optical view of the Andromeda galaxy; the ULX is circled. Colors in the XMM image correspond to different X-ray energies: 0.2 to 1 keV (red), 1 to 2 keV (green) and 2 to 4.5 keV (blue). No Labels. Inset: ESA/M. Middleton et al.; background: Bill Schoening, Vanessa Harvey/REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF    This image composites XMM-Newton X-ray data onto an optical view of the Andromeda galaxy; the ULX is circled. Colors in the XMM image correspond to different X-ray energies: 0.2 to 1 keV (red), 1 to 2 keV (green) and 2 to 4.5 keV (blue). No Labels.

Inset: ESA/M. Middleton et al.; background: Bill Schoening, Vanessa Harvey/REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF

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An optical image of the central region of M31, the Andromeda galaxy. Credit: Bill Schoening, Vanessa Harvey/REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF    An optical image of the central region of M31, the Andromeda galaxy.

Credit: Bill Schoening, Vanessa Harvey/REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF

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The ULX discovered in M31 earlier this year is circled in this image from Swift's X-Ray Telescope. Labeled. Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler    The ULX discovered in M31 earlier this year is circled in this image from Swift's X-Ray Telescope. Labeled.

Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler

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The ULX discovered in M31 earlier this year is circled in this image from Swift's X-Ray Telescope. No Labels. Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler    The ULX discovered in M31 earlier this year is circled in this image from Swift's X-Ray Telescope. No Labels.

Credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler

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This image from the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton observatory shows the central region of the Andromeda galaxy; the ULX is circled. Colors correspond to different X-ray energies: 0.2 to 1 keV (red), 1 to 2 keV (green) and 2 to 4.5 keV (blue). Labeled. ESA/M. Middleton et al.    This image from the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton observatory shows the central region of the Andromeda galaxy; the ULX is circled. Colors correspond to different X-ray energies: 0.2 to 1 keV (red), 1 to 2 keV (green) and 2 to 4.5 keV (blue). Labeled.

ESA/M. Middleton et al.

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This image from the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton observatory shows the central region of the Andromeda galaxy. Colors correspond to different X-ray energies: 0.2 to 1 keV (red), 1 to 2 keV (green) and 2 to 4.5 keV (blue). No Labels. ESA/M. Middleton et al.    This image from the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton observatory shows the central region of the Andromeda galaxy. Colors correspond to different X-ray energies: 0.2 to 1 keV (red), 1 to 2 keV (green) and 2 to 4.5 keV (blue). No Labels.

ESA/M. Middleton et al.

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The ULX's radio-emitting jet (center) is unresolved in this image constructed from Very Long Baseline Array data. Each side of the image is 20 milliarcseconds across, or about the width of a human hair seen from a distance of half a mile. Credit: NRAO/M. Middleton et al.    The ULX's radio-emitting jet (center) is unresolved in this image constructed from Very Long Baseline Array data. Each side of the image is 20 milliarcseconds across, or about the width of a human hair seen from a distance of half a mile.

Credit: NRAO/M. Middleton et al.

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Short URL to This Page:http://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/goto?11162
Animation Number:11162
Completed:2012-12-10
Producer:Francis Reddy (Syneren Technologies)
Writer:Francis Reddy (Syneren Technologies)
Series:Astrophysics Stills
Please give credit for this item to:
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. However, individual images should be credited as indicated above.
 
Keywords:
SVS >> X-ray
SVS >> Black Hole
SVS >> Astrophysics
SVS >> Space
 
 


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