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Animations: Scientists Discover Black Hole Has Three Hot Meals a Day
A Tour of GSN 069
(Credit: NASA/CXC/A. Hobart)
[Runtime: 02:42]

With closed-captions (at YouTube)

There's an adage that it's not healthy to skip meals. Apparently, a supermassive black hole in the center of a galaxy millions of light years away has gotten the message.

A team of astronomers found X-ray bursts repeating about every nine hours originating from the center of a galaxy called GSN 069. Obtained with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton, these data indicate that the supermassive black hole located there is consuming large amounts of material on a regular schedule.

While scientists had previously found two "stellar-mass" black holes (those that weigh about 10 times the Sun's mass) occasionally undergoing regular outbursts before, this behavior has never been detected from a supermassive black hole until now.

The black hole at the center of GSN 069, located 250 million light years from Earth, contains about 400,000 times the mass of the Sun. The researchers estimate that the black hole is consuming about four Moons' worth of material about three times a day. That's equivalent to almost a million billion billion pounds going into the black hole per feeding.

ESA's XMM-Newton was the first to observe this phenomenon in GSN 069 with the detection of two bursts on December 24, 2018. Astronomers then followed up with more XMM-Newton observations on January 16 and 17, 2019, and found five outbursts. Observations by Chandra less than a month later, on February 14 and 15, revealed an additional three outbursts.

The Chandra data were crucial for this study because they were able to show that the X-ray source is located in the center of the host galaxy, which is where a supermassive black hole is expected to be. The combination of data from Chandra and XMM-Newton implies that the size and duration of the black hole's meals have decreased slightly, and the gap between the meals has increased. Astronomers are planning future observations that will be crucial to see if the trend continues.


A Quick Look at GSN 069
(Credit: NASA/CXC/A. Hobart)
[Runtime: 1:12]

Astronomers found X-ray bursts repeating about every nine hours coming from the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy GSN 069.

By combining data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA's XMM-Newton, researchers watched this black hole for a span of almost two months.

Over that time, they saw the X-ray output from the black hole rise and fall in a repeating pattern.

This is evidence that the black hole is consuming a large amount of material — 4 times that of the Moon — about every 9 hours.

Regular "eating" has been seen in stellar-mass black holes, but never in their much larger supermassive black hole cousins.

This system gives astronomers a chance to study how hot gas flows around a giant black hole and is ultimately consumed.


Time-lapse X-ray & Optical
(Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXO/CSIC-INTA/G.Miniutti et al.; Optical: DSS)
[Runtime: 0:13]

Data from Chandra and XMM-Newton, taken over a span of 54 days, revealed that a supermassive black hole is blasting out X-rays about every nine hours. This indicates that this black hole, containing about 400,000 solar masses, is consuming significant amounts of material about three times per day. This is the first time such repetitive behavior has been seen in a supermassive black hole. This movie shows a DSS visible light image around the galaxy known as GSN 069. The box at the center shows Chandra data taken on February 14 and 15, 2019.



X-ray Time-lapse (Labeled)
(Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXO/CSIC-INTA/G.Miniutti et al.; Optical: DSS)
[Runtime: 0:32]

Time-lapse of Chandra data taken over a period of about 20 hours on February 14 and 15, 2019. The sequence loops over again to show how the X-ray brightness of the source in the center of GSN 069 regularly changes dramatically over that span.



X-ray Time-lapse (unlabeled)
(Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXO/CSIC-INTA/G.Miniutti et al.; Optical: DSS)
[Runtime: 0:32]

Time-lapse of Chandra data taken over a period of about 20 hours on February 14 and 15, 2019. The sequence loops over again to show how the X-ray brightness of the source in the center of GSN 069 regularly changes dramatically over that span.




Return to Scientists Discover Black Hole Has Three Hot Meals a Day (September 11, 2019)