Spitzer telescope reveals the precise timing of a black hole dance

Black holes aren’t stationary in space; in fact, they can be quite active in their movements. But because they are completely dark and can’t be observed directly, they’re not easy to study. Scientists have finally figured out the precise timing of a complicated dance between two enormous black holes, revealing hidden details about the physical characteristics of these mysterious cosmic objects.

The OJ 287 galaxy hosts one of the largest black holes ever found, with over 18 billion times the mass of our Sun. Orbiting this behemoth is another black hole with about 150 million times the Sun’s mass. Twice every 12 years, the smaller black hole crashes through the enormous disk of gas surrounding its larger companion, creating a flash of light brighter than a trillion stars — brighter, even, than the entire Milky Way galaxy. The light takes 3.5 billion years to reach Earth.

But the smaller black hole’s orbit is oblong, not circular, and it’s irregular: It shifts position with each loop around the bigger black hole and is tilted relative to the disk of gas. When the smaller black hole crashes through the disk, it creates two expanding bubbles of hot gas that move away from the disk in opposite directions, and in less than 48 hours the system appears to quadruple in brightness.

Because of the irregular orbit, the black hole collides with the disk at different times during each 12-year orbit. Sometimes the flares appear as little as one year apart; other times, as much as 10 years apart. Attempts to model the orbit and predict when the flares would occur took decades, but in 2010, scientists created a model that could predict their occurrence to within about one to three weeks. They demonstrated that their model was correct by predicting the appearance of a flare in December 2015 to within three weeks.

Then, in 2018, a group of scientists led by Lankeswar Dey, a graduate student at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India, published a paper with an even more detailed model they claimed would be able to predict the timing of future flares to within four hours. In a new study published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, those scientists report that their accurate prediction of a flare that occurred on July 31, 2019, confirms the model is correct.

The observation of that flare almost didn’t happen. Because OJ 287 was on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth, out of view of all telescopes on the ground and in Earth orbit, the black hole wouldn’t come back into view of those telescopes until early September, long after the flare had faded. But the system was within view of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which the agency retired in January 2020.

After 16 years of operations, the spacecraft’s orbit had placed it 158 million miles (254 million kilometers) from Earth, or more than 600 times the distance between Earth and the Moon. From this vantage point, Spitzer could observe the system from July 31 (the same day the flare was expected to appear) to early September, when OJ 287 would become observable to telescopes on Earth.

“When I first checked the visibility of OJ 287, I was shocked to find that it became visible to Spitzer right on the day when the next flare was predicted to occur,” said Seppo Laine, an associate staff scientist at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California, who oversaw Spitzer’s observations of the system. “It was extremely fortunate that we would be able to capture the peak of this flare with Spitzer, because no other human-made instruments were capable of achieving this feat at that specific point in time.”

Source: “Spitzer telescope reveals the precise timing of a black hole dance” Science Daily, 28 April 2020.<https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/04/200428223728.htm>

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