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M83 Animations
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Tour of M83
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Since the 1980s, astronomers have known about a mysterious class of objects that they call "ultraluminous X-ray sources," or ULXs. They named them this because these objects give off more X-ray light than most other binary systems where black holes or neutron stars are in orbit around a normal companion star. Recently, scientists using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and optical telescopes spotted a ULX in the spiral galaxy M83 that was acting even more strangely. This ULX increased its output in X-rays by 3,000 times over the course of several years. Using clues found in the X-ray and optical data, researchers think this ULX may be a member of a population of black holes that up until now was suspected to exist but had not been confirmed. These black holes, which are the smaller stellar-mass black holes, are older and more volatile than previously thought.
[Runtime: 01:04]

(Credit: NASA/CXC/A. Hobart)

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Not Your Average Superhero
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A black hole is formed when a massive star is squashed into an incredibly tiny volume. (The equivalent of squeezing the Earth into the size of a marble!) Packing so much material in such a small space gives black holes a superpower: Incredibly strong gravity that can even swallow-up light forever if it gets too close!

Around the danger zone, before disappearing forever into the black hole, any nearby material is accelerated to very high speeds. This fast-moving material gives off X-rays, which astronomers can observe using special telescopes in space.

Of course, there should be a limit to even a superhero's powers. But in recent years, astronomers have discovered regions around black holes that are giving off a crazy amount of X-rays - a lot more than what should be possible. In the galaxy pictured above, which is called M83, astronomers have discovered such a weirdly powerful black hole.

Astronomers still don't fully understand what is making these black holes mega-powerful, but it could be that they are much heavier than normal black holes. A heavy black hole could pull in more material than a smaller black hole, which would make a lot more X-rays. Instead of being a few times heavier than the Sun, like normal black holes, the mega-powerful ones could be up to 100 times heavier!
[Runtime: 01:56]

(Credit: NASA/CXC/April Jubett)

Return to M83 (April 30, 2012)