Persistent “hiccups” In A Far-off Galaxy Draw Astronomers To New Black Hole Behavior

Friday, March 29, 2024
by Jennifer Chu

At the heart of a far-off galaxy, a supermassive black hole appears to have had a case of the hiccups.

The periodic hiccups are a new behavior that has not been observed in black holes until now. The scientists believe the most likely explanation for the outbursts stems from a second, smaller black hole that is zinging around the central, supermassive black hole and slinging material out from the larger black hole’s disk of gas every 8.5 days.

“We thought we knew a lot about black holes, but this is telling us there are a lot more things they can do,” says study author Dheeraj “DJ” Pasham, a research scientist in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “We think there will be many more systems like this, and we just need to take more data to find them.”

The study’s MIT co-authors include postdoc Peter Kosec, graduate student Megan Masterson, Associate Professor Erin Kara, Principal Research Scientist Ronald Remillard, and former research scientist Michael Fausnaugh, along with collaborators from multiple institutions, including the Tor Vergata University of Rome, the Astronomical Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, and Masaryk University in the Czech Republic.

In December of 2020, the survey spotted a burst of light in a galaxy about 800 million light years away. That particular part of the sky had been relatively quiet and dark until the telescopes’ detection, when the galaxy suddenly brightened by a factor of 1,000. Pasham, who happened to see the detection reported in a community alert, chose to focus in on the flare with NASA’s NICER (the Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer), an X-ray telescope aboard the International Space Station that continuously monitors the sky for X-ray bursts that could signal activity from neutron stars, black holes, and other extreme gravitational phenomena. The timing was fortuitous, as it was getting toward the end of the yearlong period during which Pasham had permission to point, or “trigger,” the telescope.

“It was either use it or lose it, and it turned out to be my luckiest break,” he says.

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