Artist’s rendering of a black hole.
Using x-ray echoes, researchers at NASA recently discovered a supermassive black hole devouring a star about 3.9 billion light years away.
This far away event was first captured in 2011 using a new technique called x-Ray reverberation mapping, which analyzes the inside of a black hole’s accretion disk (the clouds of gas and dust that swirl around black holes).
This technique is similar to echolocation but instead of noises, scientists use the small delays in the arrival time of x-rays emitted from the disk that reflected off iron atoms in the area. Astronomers can detect reverberations by monitoring how the brightness changes across different x-ray energies.
Light can’t escape from a black hole, but sometimes the material around it can radiate light; motion occurring within accretion disks can generate bright flares.
The team discovered that the analyzed x-rays came from deep within the accretion disk near the black hole, which is interesting because it is commonly believed that during a tidal-disruption event high energy x-rays are created further away from the black hole in powerful bursts of particles.
This technique could help solve many long-debated questions such as how supermassive black holes grew so large. Researchers believe there is a good chance that the x-ray reverberation mapping will be able to measure both the speed and the direction of a black hole’s spin in the near future.
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