Spinning Black Hole Sprays Light-Speed Plasma Clouds Into Space

Astronomers have discovered rapidly swinging jets coming from a black hole almost 8,000 light-years from Earth. Published today in the journal Nature, the research shows jets from V404 Cygni’s black hole behaving in a way never seen before on such short timescales. The jets appear to be rapidly rotating with high-speed clouds of plasma — potentially just minutes apart — shooting out of the black hole in different directions.

Schematic artist's impression of the changing jet orientation in V404 Cygni. Each segment (as separated by the clock hands) shows the jets at a different time, oriented in different directions as seen in our high angular resolution radio imaging. (Image: ICRAR)

Schematic artist’s impression of the changing jet orientation in V404 Cygni. Each segment (as separated by the clock hands) shows the jets at a different time, oriented in different directions as seen in our high angular resolution radio imaging. (Image: ICRAR)

Lead author Associate Professor James Miller-Jones, from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), said black holes are some of the most extreme objects in the Universe, adding:

V404 Cygni was first identified as a black hole in 1989 when it released a big outburst of jets and radiation. Astronomers looking at archival photographic plates then found previous outbursts in observations from 1938 and 1956.

Artist’s impression of the black hole X-ray binary system V404 Cygni as seen from a distance. Bright spots in the jets are detected by our high angular resolution radio imaging, and move away from the black hole in different directions. Credit: ICRAR

Artist’s impression of the black hole X-ray binary system V404 Cygni as seen from a distance. Bright spots in the jets are detected by our high angular resolution radio imaging, and move away from the black hole in different directions. (Image: ICRAR)

Associate Professor Miller-Jones said that when V404 Cygni experienced another very bright outburst in 2015, lasting for two weeks, telescopes around the world tuned in to study what was going on.

When Associate Professor Miller-Jones and his team studied the black hole, they saw its jets behaving in a way never seen before. Where jets are usually thought to shoot straight out from the poles of black holes, these jets were shooting out in different directions at different times. And they were changing direction very quickly — over no more than a couple of hours.

Artist’s impression of V404 Cygni seen close up. The binary star system consists of a normal star in orbit with a black hole. Material from the star falls towards the black hole and spirals inwards in an accretion disk, with powerful jets being launched from the inner regions close to the black hole. Credit: ICRAR

Artist’s impression of V404 Cygni seen close up. The binary star system consists of a normal star in orbit with a black hole. Material from the star falls toward the black hole and spirals inward in an accretion disk, with powerful jets being launched from the inner regions close to the black hole. (Image: ICRAR)

Associate Professor Miller-Jones said the change in the movement of the jets was because of the accretion disk — the rotating disk of matter around a black hole. He said V404 Cygni’s accretion disk is 10 million kilometers wide, and the inner few thousand kilometers was puffed up and wobbling during the bright outburst.

The research used observations from the Very Long Baseline Array, a continent-sized radio telescope made up of 10 dishes across the United States, from the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean to Hawaii.

Artist’s impression of the accretion disk around the black hole. During a powerful outburst in 2015, intense radiation caused the inner few thousand kilometres of the accretion disk to “puff up” into a doughnut-shaped structure. Credit: ICRAR

Artist’s impression of the accretion disk around the black hole. During a powerful outburst in 2015, intense radiation caused the inner few thousand kilometers of the accretion disk to ‘puff up’ into a doughnut-shaped structure. (Image: ICRAR)

Co-author Alex Tetarenko — a recent Ph.D. graduate from the University of Alberta and currently an East Asian Observatory Fellow working in Hawaii — said the speed the jets were changing direction meant the scientists had to use a very different approach to most radio observations, saying:

Artist’s impression of jet ejections in V404 Cygni. With our radio telescopes, we see individual bright clouds of plasma that have been ejected from the innermost regions, and redirected by the puffed-up inner accretion disk. Credit: ICRAR

Artist’s impression of jet ejections in V404 Cygni. With our radio telescopes, we see individual bright clouds of plasma that have been ejected from the innermost regions, and redirected by the puffed-up inner accretion disk. (Image: ICRAR)

Instead, the researchers produced 103 individual images, each about 70 seconds long, and joined them together into a movie. Dr. Tetarenko said:

Artist’s impression of twisted space-time around the spinning black hole. The black hole is so dense that it creates a rupture in the very fabric of space time, seen here as the infinitely deep well in the centre. As the black hole spins, it drags spacetime around with it, giving rise to the twisting of the spacetime grid shown here. This leads to the precession of the inner puffed-up accretion disk. Credit: ICRAR

Artist’s impression of twisted space-time around the spinning black hole. The black hole is so dense that it creates a rupture in the very fabric of space time, seen here as the infinitely deep well in the centre. As the black hole spins, it drags spacetime around with it, giving rise to the twisting of the spacetime grid shown here. This leads to the precession of the inner puffed-up accretion disk. (Image: ICRAR)

Study co-author Dr. Gemma Anderson, who is also based at ICRAR’s Curtin University node, said the wobble of the inner accretion disk could happen in other extreme events in the Universe too.

Provided by: International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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