Black Holes Eat Stars in Variable Mood Lighting

This artist's impression shows a binary system containing a stellar-mass black hole called IGR J17091-3624, or IGR J17091 for short. The strong gravity of the black hole, on the left, is pulling gas away from a companion star on the right. This gas forms a disk of hot gas around the black hole, and the wind is driven off this disk. (Image: NASA / CXC / M.Weiss)
This artist's impression shows a binary system containing a stellar-mass black hole called IGR J17091-3624, or IGR J17091 for short. The strong gravity of the black hole, on the left, is pulling gas away from a companion star on the right. This gas forms a disk of hot gas around the black hole, and the wind is driven off this disk. (Image: NASA / CXC / M.Weiss)

When a black hole chews up a star, it produces visible light or X-rays, but astronomers have almost never detected both types of radiation. Astronomer Peter Jonker (SRON/Radboud University) and his colleagues have now spotted a number of captured stars with an X-ray telescope a few years after they were discovered in optical light. It appears that black holes all dine in the same way after all, while the mood lighting varies according to a fixed pattern. Their study is published in the Astrophysical Journal.

All across the universe, gigantic black holes are lurking in the dark within centers of galaxies. Like an ambush predator, they patiently wait for unsuspecting stars to pass, and use their overwhelming gravity to pull them apart into a spaghetti strand and finally swallow them up. Astronomers sometimes see this spectacle in visible light, sometimes in X-rays, but almost never in both types of light at the same time. Do black holes have two different ways of eating a star?

Star is captured by a black hole and pulled apart into a spaghetti strand. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHU/UCSC)

A star is captured by a black hole and pulled apart into a spaghetti strand. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHU/UCSC)

From visual to X-ray

Astronomer Peter Jonker (SRON/Radboud University) and his international colleagues have now observed a number of sources with the Chandra X-ray telescope that were originally identified in the optical band a few years earlier. It appears that a star, in the process of being devoured, first radiates visible light and subsequently emits X-rays.

This artist's concept illustrates a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun. Supermassive black holes are enormously dense objects buried at the hearts of galaxies. (Smaller black holes also exist throughout galaxies.) In this illustration, the supermassive black hole at the center is surrounded by matter flowing onto the black hole in what is termed an accretion disk. This disk forms as the dust and gas in the galaxy falls onto the hole, attracted by its gravity. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This artist’s concept illustrates a supermassive black hole with millions to billions of times the mass of our Sun. Supermassive black holes are enormously dense objects buried at the hearts of galaxies. (Smaller black holes also exist throughout galaxies.) In this illustration, the supermassive black hole at the center is surrounded by matter flowing onto the black hole in what is termed an accretion disk. This disk forms as the dust and gas in the galaxy falls onto the hole, attracted by its gravity. (Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

So black holes do have a common eating behavior, while the mood lighting during dinner changes according to a fixed pattern, from gentle white to pale, bright X-rays. Jonker’s finding could soon be tested by combining data from the recently launched X-ray satellite eROSITA — a predecessor of Athena — and telescopes that sweep the sky collecting visible light, such as the BlackGEM telescope, which is currently being installed in Chile under the supervision of Radboud University.

Collision

A captured star is stretched into such a long string that it encounters itself after a full orbit around a black hole, like a snake biting its tail. That collision causes the string to lose altitude and fall toward the black hole. Jonker has two possible explanations for his theory that visible light and X-rays are both released, strictly in that order.

The first option is that visible light emission is caused by the energy released during the collision, and that we see the X-rays because potential energy is lost during the drop toward the black hole. The stream of shredded stellar gas starts to glow like a so-called black body, with a characteristic curve as a spectrum that peaks in soft X-rays.

Did you know that a black hole could hurtle like a cannonball? Well, the Hubble Space Telescope found such an object – making this phenomena the image of the year in 2002. Astronomers were able to track the hole because it had a companion star – a black hole cannot be seen on its own because it swallows light. The theory is, which furthered by this image, that claims that black holes are created when a star dies in a violent supernova. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Did you know that a black hole could hurtle like a cannonball? Well, the Hubble Space Telescope found such an object – making this phenomenon the image of the year in 2002. Astronomers were able to track the hole because it had a companion star – a black hole cannot be seen on its own because it swallows light. The theory is, which is furthered by this image, that black holes are created when a star dies in a violent supernova. (Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

The second option is that the collision itself emits X-rays, but a dense cloud emerges that absorbs the X-rays and re-emits them as visible light. When enough star material has disappeared, the cloud becomes thin enough to allow the X-rays to pass through, including the X-ray radiation as a result of the plunge with associated loss of potential energy.

Rotation

A consequence of Jonker’s theory is that there is a connection between the rotation of black holes and the amount of X-rays emitted by stars while being eaten. Whether black holes rotate is currently unknown. If eROSITA observes hundreds of spaghetti strands every year, this could confirm that black holes are rotating. If only a few are detected each year, it would indicate stationary black holes.

Provided by: Erik Arends, SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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