Friday, March 22, 2013

A Record Smashing Black Hole Merry-Go-Round


Astronomers using a European telescope in space have found a star and black hole that whip around a common center every two and a half hours, setting a new record for the movement of such weird companions in space. Like a merciless cannibal, the black hole is also stripping the poor star of its outer layers of hot gas and pulling them into its open "mouth."



To understand this system, you must first know that while some stars are single, like our Sun, many stars live in intimate relationships with each other.  Two stars may orbit a common center and spend their lives whirling around in a rhythmic cosmic dance. If one of those stars should be especially massive, it may end its life as a black hole -- a collapsed star corpse so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape from it.

In our present case, the black hole is estimated to contain enough material to make more than three of our Suns.   The little star it shares its dance with, on the other hand, is only about 1/5th the mass of our Sun. As their mutual gravity pulls them around, the star travels at 1.2 million miles per hour while the black hole moves at 90,000 miles per hour.  The two are only 600,000 miles apart (a very small distance for astronomy.)  Compare that to the 93 million miles that separate the Earth from the Sun.

Check out an animated video of this crazy pair of cosmic objects at: http://spaceinvideos.esa.int/Videos/2013/03/MAXI_J1659_152

You can see material being stripped from the living star and swirling in toward the black hole.  It is this doomed material which glows with tell-tale x-rays and identified the system to the XMM-Newton x-ray telescope being operated by the European Space Agency.  We can only detect these x-rays BEFORE the material enters the black hole -- nothing can escape from it once it falls into the black hole itself.

For a quick YouTube video where I explain the basics of what a black hole is, you can see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DX_cc-IjpY

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