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  • richardmitnick 11:04 am on October 24, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From CfA: “Accreting Supermassive Black Holes in the Early Universe” 

    Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

    Center For Astrophysics

    October 24, 2014
    No Writer Credit

    Supermassive black holes containing millions or even billions of solar-masses of material are found at the nuclei of galaxies. Our Milky Way, for example, has a nucleus with a black hole with about four million solar masses of material. Around the black hole, according to theories, is a torus of dust and gas, and when material falls toward the black hole (a process called accretion) the inner edge of the disk can be heated to millions of degrees. Such accretion heating can power dramatic phenomena like bipolar jets of rapidly moving charged particles. Such actively accreting supermassive black holes in galaxies are called active galactic nuclei (AGN).


    The evolution of AGN in cosmic time provides a picture of their role in the formation and co-evolution of galaxies. Recently, for example, there has been some evidence that AGN with more modest luminosities and accretion rates (compared to the most dramatic cases) developed later in cosmic history (dubbed “downsizing”), although the reasons for and implications of this effect are debated. CfA astronomers Eleni Kalfontzou, Francesca Civano, Martin Elvis and Paul Green and a colleague have just published the largest study of X-ray selected AGN in the universe from the time when it was only 2.5 billion years old, with the most distant AGN in their sample dating from when the universe was about 1.2 billion years old.

    The astronomers studied 209 AGN detected with the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

    NASA Chandra Telescope

    A multicolor image of galaxies in the field of the Chandra Cosmic Evolution Survey. A large, new study of 209 galaxies in the early universe with X-ray bright supermassive black holes finds that more modest AGN tend to peak later in cosmic history, and that obscured and unobscured AGN evolve in similar ways.
    X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/F.Civano et al. Optical: NASA/STScI

    They note that the X-ray observations are less contaminated by host galaxy emission than optical surveys, and consequently that they span a wider, more representative range of physical conditions. The team’s analysis confirms the proposed trend towards downsizing, while it also can effectively rule out some alternative proposals. The scientists also find, among other things, that this sample of AGN represents nuclei with a wide range of molecular gas and dust extinction. Combined with the range of AGN dates, this result enables them to conclude that obscured and unobscured phases of AGN evolve in similar ways.

    See the full article here.

    The Center for Astrophysics combines the resources and research facilities of the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory under a single director to pursue studies of those basic physical processes that determine the nature and evolution of the universe. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) is a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution, founded in 1890. The Harvard College Observatory (HCO), founded in 1839, is a research institution of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, and provides facilities and substantial other support for teaching activities of the Department of Astronomy.

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  • richardmitnick 10:54 am on August 19, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SPACE.com: “Supermassive Death: 3 Stars Eaten by Black Holes” 

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    August 19, 2014
    Ian O’Neill

    Astrophysicists have analyzed two decades-worth of X-ray data and discovered three events inside galactic cores that can be interpreted in only one way: stellar destruction.

    ANALYSIS: Supermassive Black Hole Jet Mystery Solved

    For any given galaxy, it is estimated that a star will be destroyed by the central supermassive black hole approximately once every 10,000 years. The vast majority of known galaxies are thought to contain at least one supermassive black hole in their cores, having a dramatic effect on galactic and stellar evolution. [Images: Black Holes of the Universe]

    As a star drifts too close to a supermassive black hole, intense tidal stresses rip the star to shreds. As this happens, the shredded material will be dragged into the black hole’s accretion disk — a hot disk of gas that is gradually pulled into the black hole’s event horizon, bulking up the black hole’s mass, or blasted as energetic jets from its poles.

    Should there be a rapid injection of material — i.e. a star becoming blended and ingested into the accretion disk — powerful X-rays of a specific signature will be generated.

    NEWS: Supermassive Black Holes are Not Doughnuts!

    In a new study by the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology and Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, astrophysicists trawled through observations from two space observatories to discover three likely occasions where stars have been eaten by supermassive black holes. Their work has been accepted for publication in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

    Using data from the German ROSAT and European XMM-Newton space observatories, X-ray data from 1990 (to today) could be accessed and three events in different galaxies were positively identified — designated 1RXS J114727.1 + 494302, 1RXS J130547.2 + 641252 and 1RXS J235424.5-102053. Invaluable to this study was the long-duration observations by ROSAT (which operated from 1990 to 1999) and XMM-Newton (launched in 1999) that could detect the moment of stellar death, keeping track of the X-ray emissions over the years as the star’s material was gradually ingested.

    ROSAT Spacecraft

    ESA XMM Newton

    NEWS: Intermediate Black Hole Implicated in Star’s Death

    No more than two dozen other stellar death event candidates were seen in the observations, but positive identifications probably won’t be available until the launch of the multi-instrument Spectrum-X-Gamma space observatory in 2016.

    Spectrum GammaX
    Spectrum-X-Gamma space observatory

    This work has added some much needed detail to these rare events, indicating that (on average) one star every 30,000 years in any given galaxy will be destroyed by the central supermassive black hole, though the researchers caution that more observations of stars being eaten by supermassive black holes are needed.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 10:24 am on August 18, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SPACE.com: ” It’s Confirmed! Black Holes Do Come in Medium Sizes” 

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    August 18, 2014
    Mike Wall

    Black holes do indeed come in three sizes: small, medium and extra large, a new study suggests.

    Astronomers have studied many black holes at either size extreme — “stellar-mass” black holes, which are a few dozen times as weighty as the sun, and supermassive black holes, which can contain millions or billions of times the mass of the sun and lurk at the heart of most, if not all, galaxies.

    Researchers have spotted hints of much rarer medium-size black holes, which harbor between 100 and several hundred thousand solar masses. But it’s tough to weigh these objects definitively — so tough that their existence has been a matter of debate.

    But that debate can now be put to rest, says a research team that has measured an intermediate black hole’s mass with unprecedented precision. A black hole in the nearby galaxy M82 weighs in at 428 solar masses, give or take a hundred suns or so, they report today (Aug. 17) in the journal Nature.

    “Objects in this range are the least expected of all black holes,” study co-author Richard Mushotzky, an astronomy professor at the University of Maryland, said in a statement. “Astronomers have been asking, ‘Do these objects exist, or do they not exist? What are their properties?’ Until now, we have not had the data to answer these questions.”

    Patterns in the light

    Black holes famously gobble up anything that gets too close, including light. But that doesn’t mean astronomers can’t see them; bright X-ray light streams from the superhot disk of material spiraling into a black hole’s mouth.

    About 15 years ago, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory spacecraft spotted such emissions coming from a source in the galaxy M82, which lies about 12 million light-years away from Earth. For a long time, Mushotzky and some other scientists suspected that the object, called M82 X-1, was a medium-size black hole. But those suspicions were tough to confirm.

    NASA Chandra Telescope

    “For reasons that are very hard to understand, these objects have resisted standard measurement techniques,” Mushotzky said.

    In the new study, a team led by University of Maryland doctoral student Dheeraj Pasham took a closer look at M82 X-1. They studied observations made from 2004 to 2010 by NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE) satellite, which ceased operations in 2012.


    The RXTE data revealed a pair of repeating oscillations in M82 X-1’s X-ray emissions. These oscillations occurred 5.1 times per second and 3.3 times per second, respectively — a ratio of three to two. This fact allowed the team to determine the black hole’s mass.

    “In essence, [the] frequency of these 3:2 ratio oscillations scales inverse[ly] with black hole mass,” Pasham told Space.com via email. “Simply put, if the black hole is small, the orbital periods at the innermost circular orbit are shorter, but if the black hole is big, the orbital periods are longer (smaller frequencies).”

    The researchers calculated M82 X-1’s mass at 428 suns, plus or minus 105 solar masses.

    “In our opinion, and as the paper’s referees seem to agree, this is the most accurate mass measurement of an intermediate-mass black hole to date,” Pasham said.

    Learning about black-hole growth

    Confirming the existence of intermediate black holes could help researchers better understand the supermassive monsters at the cores of galaxies.

    Such behemoths apparently first formed in the universe’s very early days, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. They could not have grown so big so fast if their “seeds” were small stellar-mass black holes (which result from the collapse of giant stars), Pasham said.

    “Many theories, therefore, have suggested that these initial seed black holes had to have been a few 100 -1,000 times our sun,” he said. “But we did not have firm evidence for such intermediate-mass black holes.”

    Stellar-mass black holes also often feature paired X-ray oscillations that occur in a 3:2 frequency ratio. Therefore, the new observations suggest that medium-size black holes may behave like scaled-up versions of stellar-mass black hole systems, Pasham added.

    The research is detailed in the Aug. 17 edition of the journal Nature.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 6:14 pm on August 12, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From The Royal Astronomical Society: “NASA’s NuSTAR sees rare blurring of black hole light” 

    Royal Astronomical Society

    Royal Astronomical Society

    12 August 2014
    J.D. Harrington
    Headquarters, Washington

    Whitney Clavin
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory
    United States
    Tel: +1 818 354 4673

    Science contact

    Prof Michael Parker
    Institute of Astronomy
    United Kingdom
    Tel: +44 (0)1223 337 511

    Scientists have used NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR), an orbiting X-ray telescope, to capture an extreme and rare event in the regions immediately surrounding a supermassive black hole. A compact source of X-rays that sits near the black hole, called the corona, has moved closer to the black hole over a period of just days. The researchers publish their results in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.


    An artist’s impression of a supermassive black hole and its surroundings. The regions around supermassive black holes shine brightly in X-rays. Some of this radiation comes from a surrounding disk, and most comes from the corona, pictured here as the white light at the base of a jet. This is one possible configuration for the Mrk 335 corona, as its actual shape is unclear. Credit: NASA-JPL / Caltech.

    “The corona recently collapsed in towards the black hole, with the result that the black hole’s intense gravity pulled all the light down onto its surrounding disk, where material is spiralling inward,” said Michael Parker of the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, lead author of the new paper.

    As the corona shifted closer to the black hole, the black hole’s gravitational field exerted a stronger tug on the x-rays emitted by the corona. The result was an extreme blurring and stretching of the X-ray light. Such events had been observed previously, but never to this degree and in such detail.

    Supermassive black holes are thought to reside in the centres of all galaxies. Some are more massive and rotate faster than others. The black hole in this new study, referred to as Markarian 335, or Mrk 335, is about 324 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the Pegasus constellation. It is one of the most extreme systems of which the mass and spin rate have ever been measured. The black hole squeezes about 10 million times the mass of our Sun into a region only 30 times as wide as the Sun’s diameter, and it spins so rapidly that space and time are dragged around with it.

    Even though some light falls into a supermassive black hole never to be seen again, other high-energy light emanates from both the corona and the surrounding accretion disk of superheated material. Though astronomers are uncertain of the shape and temperature of coronas, they know that they contain particles that move close to the speed of light.

    NASA’s Swift satellite has monitored Mrk 335 for years, and recently noted a dramatic change in its X-ray brightness. In what is called a ‘target-of-opportunity’ observation, NuSTAR was redirected to take a look at high-energy X-rays from this source in the range of 3 to 79 kiloelectron volts. This particular energy range offers astronomers a detailed look at what is happening near the event horizon, the region around a black hole from which light can no longer escape gravity’s grasp.

    NASA SWIFT Telescope

    Follow-up observations indicate that the corona still is in this close configuration, months after it moved. Researchers don’t know whether and when the corona will shift back. What is more, the NuSTAR observations reveal that the grip of the black hole’s gravity pulled the corona’s light onto the inner portion of its superheated disk, better illuminating it. The shifting corona lit up the precise region they wanted to study, almost as if somebody had shone a flashlight for the astronomers.

    The new data could ultimately help determine more about the mysterious nature of black hole coronas. In addition, the observations have provided better measurements of Mrk 335’s furious relativistic spin rate. Relativistic speeds are those approaching the speed of light, as described by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.

    “We still don’t understand exactly how the corona is produced or why it changes its shape, but we see it lighting up material around the black hole, enabling us to study the regions so close in that effects described by Einstein’s theory of general relativity become prominent,” said NuSTAR Principal Investigator Fiona Harrison of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. “NuSTAR’s unprecedented capability for observing this and similar events allows us to study the most extreme light-bending effects of general relativity.”

    See the full article here.

    The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science.

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  • richardmitnick 2:13 pm on August 7, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SPACE.com: “How Did Supermassive Black Holes Get So Big So Fast?” 

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    August 07, 2014
    Charles Q. Choi

    Black holes may have grown incredibly rapidly in the newborn universe, perhaps helping explain why they appear so early in cosmic history, researchers say.

    Black holes possess gravitational pulls so powerful that not even light can escape their clutches. They are generally believed to form after massive stars die in gargantuan explosions known as supernovas, which crush the remaining cores into incredibly dense objects.

    visualiztion of a supermassive black hole

    Supermassive black holes millions to billions of times the mass of the sun occur at the center of most, if not all, galaxies. Such monstrously large black holes have existed since the infancy of the universe, some 800 million years or so after the Big Bang. However, it remains a mystery how these giants could have grown so big in the relatively short amount of time they had to form.

    In modern black holes, features called accretion disks limit the speed of growth. These disks of gas and dust that swirl into black holes can prevent black holes from growing rapidly in two different ways, researchers say. First, as matter in an accretion disk gets close to a black hole, traffic jams occur that slow down any other infalling material. Second, as matter collides within these traffic jams, it heats up, generating energetic radiation that drives gas and dust away from the black hole.

    “Black holes don’t actively suck in matter — they are not like vacuum cleaners,” said lead study author Tal Alexander, an astrophysicist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

    “A star or a gas stream can be on a stable orbit around a black hole, exactly as the Earth revolves around the sun, without falling into it,” Alexander told Space.com. “It is actually quite a challenge to think of efficient ways to drive gas into the black hole at a high enough rate that can lead to rapid growth.”

    Alexander and his colleague Priyamvada Natarajan may have found a way in which early black holes could have grown to supermassive proportions — in part, by operating without the restrictions of accretion disks. The pair detailed their findings online today (Aug. 7) in the journal Science.

    The scientists began with a model of a black hole 10 times the mass of the sun embedded in a cluster of thousands of stars. They fed the simulated black hole continuous flows of dense, cold, opaque gas.

    “The early universe was much smaller and hence denser on average than it is today,” Alexander said.

    This cold, dense gas would have obscured a substantial amount of the energetic radiation given off by matter falling into the black hole. In addition, the gravitational pull of the many stars around the black hole “causes it to zigzag randomly, and this erratic motion prevents the formation of a slowly draining accretion disk,” Alexander said. This means that matter falls into the black hole from all sides instead of getting forced into a disk around the black hole, from which it would swirl in far more slowly.

    The “supra-exponential growth” observed in the model black hole suggests that a black hole 10 times the mass of the sun could have grown to more than 10 billion times the mass of the sun by just 1 billion years after the Big Bang, researchers said.

    “This theoretical result shows a plausible route to the formation of supermassive black holes very soon after the Big Bang,” Alexander said.

    Future research could examine whether supra-exponential growth of black holes could occur in modern times as well. The high-density and high-mass cold flows seen in the ancient universe may exist “for short times in unstable, dense, star-forming clusters, or in dense accretion disks around already-existing supermassive black holes,” Alexander said.

    You can read the abstract of the new study here.

    See the full article here.

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