Researchers report the first-ever recordings of X-ray emissions from the far side of a black hole
Researchers observed bright flares of X-ray emissions, produced as gas falls into a supermassive black hole. The flares echoed off of the gas falling into the black hole, and as the flares were subsiding, short flashes of X-rays were seen – corresponding to the reflection of the flares from the far side of the disk, bent around the black hole by its strong gravitational field. (Image credit: Dan Wilkins)
Watching X-rays flung out into the universe by the supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy 800 million light-years away, Stanford University astrophysicist Dan Wilkins noticed an intriguing pattern. He observed a series of bright flares of X-rays and then, the telescopes recorded something unexpected: additional flashes of X-rays that were smaller, later and of different “colours” than the bright flares. “Any light that goes into that black hole doesn’t come out, so we shouldn’t be able to see anything that’s behind the black hole,” said Wilkins, who is a research scientist at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. It is another strange characteristic of the black hole, however, that makes this observation possible. “The reason we can see that is because that black hole is warping space, bending light and twisting magnetic fields around itself,” Wilkins explained. The strange discovery published in Nature, is the first direct observation of light from behind a black hole – a scenario that was predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity but never confirmed, until now. “Fifty years ago, when astrophysicists starting speculating about how the magnetic field might behave close to a black hole, they had no idea that one day we might have the techniques to observe this directly and see Einstein’s general theory of relativity in action,” said Roger Blandford, a co-author of the paper who is the Luke Blossom Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford professor of physics and SLAC professor of particle physics and astrophysics.
The leading theory for what a corona is starts with gas sliding into the black hole where it superheats to millions of degrees. At that temperature, electrons separate from atoms, creating a magnetized plasma. Caught up in the powerful spin of the black hole, the magnetic field arcs so high above the black hole, and twirls about itself so much, that it eventually breaks altogether. “This magnetic field getting tied up and then snapping close to the black hole heats everything around it and produces these high energy electrons that then go on to produce the X-rays,” said Wilkins. As Wilkins took a closer look to investigate the origin of the flares, he saw a series of smaller flashes. These, the researchers determined, are the same X-ray flares but reflected from the back of the disk – a first glimpse at the far side of a black hole.
Source: Stanford University news release