Tuesday, 15 May 2012

NASA'S Chandra Sees Remarkable Outburst from Old Black Hole


WASHINGTON -- An extraordinary outburst produced by a black hole in a nearby galaxy has provided direct evidence for a population of old, volatile stellar black holes. The discovery, made by astronomers using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, provides new insight into the nature of a mysterious class of black holes that can produce as much energy in X-rays as a million suns radiate at all wavelengths.

Researchers used Chandra to discover a new ultraluminous X-ray source, or ULX. These objects give off more X-rays than most binary systems, in which a companion star orbits the remains of a collapsed star. These collapsed stars form either a dense core called a neutron star or a black hole. The extra X-ray emission suggests ULXs contain black holes that might be much more massive than the ones found elsewhere in our galaxy.

The companion stars to ULXs, when identified, are usually young, massive stars, implying their black holes are also young. The latest research, however, provides direct evidence that ULXs can contain much older black holes and some sources may have been misidentified as young ones.

The intriguing new ULX is located in M83, a spiral galaxy about 15 million light years from Earth, discovered in 2010 with Chandra. Astronomers compared this data with Chandra images from 2000 and 2001, which showed the source had increased in X-ray brightness by at least 3,000 times and has since become the brightest X-ray source in M83.

The sudden brightening of the M83 ULX is one of the largest changes in X-rays ever seen for this type of object, which do not usually show dormant periods. No sign of the ULX was found in historical X-ray images made with Einstein Observatory in 1980, ROSAT in 1994, the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton in 2003 and 2008, or NASA's Swift observatory in 2005.

"The flaring up of this ULX took us by surprise and was a sure sign we had discovered something new about the way black holes grow," said Roberto Soria of Curtin University in Australia, who led the new study. The dramatic jump in X-ray brightness, according to the researchers, likely occurred because of a sudden increase in the amount of material falling into the black hole.

In 2011, Soria and his colleagues used optical images from the Gemini Observatory and NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to discover a bright blue source at the position of the X-ray source. The object had not been previously observed in a Magellan Telescope image taken in April 2009 or a Hubble image obtained in August 2009. The lack of a blue source in the earlier images indicates the black hole's companion star is fainter, redder and has a much lower mass than most of the companions that previously have been directly linked to ULXs. The bright, blue optical emission seen in 2011 must have been caused by a dramatic accumulation of more material from the companion star.

"If the ULX only had been observed during its peak of X-ray emission in 2010, the system easily could have been mistaken for a black hole with a massive, much younger stellar companion, about 10 to 20 million years old," said co-author William Blair of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The companion to the black hole in M83 is likely a red giant star at least 500 million years old, with a mass almost four times the sun's. Theoretical models for the evolution of stars suggest the black hole should be almost as old as its companion.

Another ULX containing a volatile, old black hole recently was discovered in the Andromeda galaxy by Amanpreet Kaur, from Clemson University, and colleagues and published in the February 2012 issue of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Matthew Middleton and colleagues from the University of Durham reported more information in the March 2012 issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. They used data from Chandra, XMM-Newton and HST to show the ULX is highly variable and its companion is an old, red star.

"With these two objects, it's becoming clear there are two classes of ULX, one containing young, persistently growing black holes and the other containing old black holes that grow erratically," said Kip Kuntz, a co-author of the new M83 paper, also of Johns Hopkins University. "We were very fortunate to observe the M83 object at just the right time to make the before and after comparison."

A paper describing these results will appear in the May 10th issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.

BLACK HOLES SHUT DOWN GALACTIC STAR-MAKING



WASHINGTON -- The Herschel Space Observatory has shown galaxies with the most powerful, active black holes at their cores produce fewer stars than galaxies with less active black holes. The results are the first to demonstrate black holes suppressed galactic star formation when the universe was less than half its current age. 


Herschel is a European Space Agency-led mission with important NASA contributions. 


"We want to know how star formation and black hole activity are linked," said Mathew Page of University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory in the United Kingdom and lead author of the Nature paper describing these findings. "The two processes increase together up to a point, but the most energetic black holes appear to turn off star formation." 


Supermassive black holes, weighing as much as millions of suns, are believed to reside in the hearts of all large galaxies. When gas falls upon these monsters, the material is accelerated and heated around the black hole, releasing great torrents of energy. Earlier in the history of the universe, these giant, luminous black holes, called active galactic nuclei, were often much brighter and more energetic. Star formation was also livelier back then. 


Studies of nearby galaxies suggest active black holes can squash star formation. The revved-up, central black holes likely heat up and disperse the galactic reservoirs of cold gas needed to create new stars. These studies have only provided "snapshots" in time, however, leaving the overall relationship of active galactic nuclei and star formation unclear, especially over the cosmic history of galaxy formation. 


"To understand how active galactic nuclei affect star formation over the history of the universe, we investigated a time when star formation was most vigorous, between eight and 12 billion years ago," said co-author James Bock, a senior research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., and co-coordinator of the Herschel Multi-tiered Extragalactic Survey. "At that epoch, galaxies were forming stars 10 times more rapidly than they are today on average. Many of these galaxies are incredibly luminous, more than 1,000 times brighter than our Milky Way." 


For the new study, Page and colleagues used Herschel data that probed 65 galaxies at wavelengths equivalent to the thickness of several sheets of office paper, a region of the light spectrum known as the far-infrared. These wavelengths reveal the rate of star formation, because most of the energy released by developing stars heats surrounding dust, which then re-radiates starlight out in far-infrared wavelengths. 


The researchers compared their infrared readings with X-rays streaming from the active central black holes in the survey's galaxies, measured by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. At lower intensities, the black holes' brightness and star formation increased in sync. However, star formation dropped off in galaxies with the most energetic central black holes. Astronomers think inflows of gas fuel new stars and supermassive black holes. Feed a black hole too much, however, and it starts spewing radiation into the galaxy that prevents raw material from coalescing into new stars. 


"Now that we see the relationship between active supermassive black holes and star formation, we want to know more about how this process works," said Bill Danchi, Herschel program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Does star formation get disrupted from the beginning with the formation of the brightest galaxies of this type, or do all active black holes eventually shut off star formation, and energetic ones do this more quickly than less active ones?" 


Herschel is a European Space Agency cornerstone mission, with science instruments provided by consortia of European institutes and important participation by NASA. NASA's Herschel Project Office is based at JPL. JPL contributed mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel's three science instruments. The NASA Herschel Science Center, part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech, supports the United States astronomical community. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.