They discover a supermassive black hole that makes three meals a day

A supermassive black hole in the center of a galaxy called GSN 069 is consuming large amounts of material on a regular schedule, as X-ray bursts denote every nine hours.

Although scientists had previously found two black holes of "stellar mass" (weighing approximately 10 times the mass of the Sun) occasionally experiencing regular explosions before, this behavior has never been detected in a supermassive black hole so far.

The black hole in the center of GSN 069, located 250 million light years from Earth, contains approximately 400,000 times the mass of the Sun. The researchers, who used the Chandra space telescopes (NASA) and XMM-Newton (ESA) estimate that the black hole consumes approximately four moons like Earth's material approximately three times a day.

"This black hole follows a nutritional plan as we have never seen before," said Giovanni Miniutti of the ESA Center for Astrobiology in Spain, first author of a Nature article, describing these results. "This behavior is so unprecedented that we had to coin a new expression to describe it:"Quasi-periodic X-ray eruptions"".

The XMM-Newton of ESA was the first to observe this phenomenon in GSN 069 with the detection of two bursts on December 24, 2018. Miniutti and his colleagues then followed up with more observations of XMM-Newton on January 16 and 17, 2019, and they found five outbursts. Chandra's observations less than a month later, on February 14, revealed three additional outbursts.

"By combining data from these two X-ray observatories, we have followed these periodic outbursts for at least 54 days," said co-author Richard Saxton, of the European Space Astronomy Center in Madrid, Spain. "This gives us a unique opportunity to witness the flow of matter in a supermassive black hole that accelerates and slows down repeatedly."

During bursts, X-ray emission becomes approximately 20 times brighter than during moments of silence.. The temperature of the gas that falls into the black hole also rises, from approximately half a million degrees Celsius during quiet periods to approximately 1.3 million during outbursts. The temperature of the latter is similar to that of the gas around the supermassive black holes that grow more actively.

The origin of this hot gas has been an old mystery because it seems too hot to be associated with the disk of matter that falls around the black holes. Although its origin is also a mystery in GSN 069, the ability to study a supermassive black hole where hot gas repeatedly forms and then disappears can provide important clues.

"We believe that the origin of the X-ray emission is a star that the black hole has partially or completely broken and is slowly consuming," said co-author Margherita Giustini, also of the ESA Astrobiology Center. "But as for repeated bursts, this is a completely different story whose origin needs to be studied with more data and new theoretical models."


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