The Daily Galaxy
Last year, the very rare presence of a pulsar (named SGR J1745-2900) was also detected in the proximity of a supermassive black hole (Sgr A**, made up of millions of solar masses), but there is a combination that is still yet to be discovered: that of a pulsar orbiting a ‘normal’ black hole; that is, one with a similar mass to that of stars.
Supermassive Black Hole Sagittarius A*
The center of the Milky Way galaxy, with the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), located in the middle, is revealed in these images. As described in our press release, astronomers have used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to take a major step in understanding why material around Sgr A* is extraordinarily faint in X-rays.
The large image contains X-rays from Chandra in blue and infrared emission from the Hubble Space Telescope in red and yellow. The inset shows a close-up view of Sgr A* in X-rays only, covering a region half a light year wide. The diffuse X-ray emission is from hot gas captured by the black hole and being pulled inwards. This hot gas originates from winds produced by a disk-shaped distribution of young massive stars observed in infrared observations.
These new findings are the result of one of the biggest observing campaigns ever performed by Chandra. During 2012, Chandra collected about five weeks worth of observations to capture unprecedented X-ray images and energy signatures of multi-million degree gas swirling around Sgr A*, a black hole with about 4 million times the mass of the Sun. At just 26,000 light years from Earth, Sgr A* is one of very few black holes in the universe where we can actually witness the flow of matter nearby.
The authors infer that less than 1% of the material initially within the black hole’s gravitational influence reaches the event horizon, or point of no return, because much of it is ejected. Consequently, the X-ray emission from material near Sgr A* is remarkably faint, like that of most of the giant black holes in galaxies in the nearby Universe.
The captured material needs to lose heat and angular momentum before being able to plunge into the black hole. The ejection of matter allows this loss to occur.
This work should impact efforts using radio telescopes to observe and understand the “shadow” cast by the event horizon of Sgr A* against the background of surrounding, glowing matter. It will also be useful for understanding the impact that orbiting stars and gas clouds might make with the matter flowing towards and away from the black hole.
The paper is available online and is published in the journal Science. The first author is Q.Daniel Wang from University of Massachusetts at Amherst, MA; and the co-authors are Michael Nowak from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, MA; Sera Markoff from University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands, Fred Baganoff from MIT; Sergei Nayakshin from University of Leicester in the UK; Feng Yuan from Shanghai Astronomical Observatory in China; Jorge Cuadra from Pontificia Universidad de Catolica de Chile in Chile; John Davis from MIT; Jason Dexter from University of California, Berkeley, CA; Andrew Fabian from University of Cambridge in the UK; Nicolas Grosso from Universite de Strasbourg in France; Daryl Haggard from Northwestern University in Evanston, IL; John Houck from MIT; Li Ji from Purple Mountain Observatory in Nanjing, China; Zhiyuan Li from Nanjing University in China; Joseph Neilsen from Boston University in Boston, MA; Delphine Porquet from Universite de Strasbourg in France; Frank Ripple from University of Massachusetts at Amherst, MA and Roman Shcherbakov from University of Maryland, in College Park, MD. Image credit: X-ray: NASA/UMass/D.Wang et al., IR: NASA/STScI
This image was taken with NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory.
The intermittent light emitted by pulsars, the most precise timekeepers in the universe, allows scientists to verify Einstein’s theory of relativity, especially when these objects are paired up with another neutron star or white dwarf that interferes with their gravity. However, this theory could be analysed much more effectively if a pulsar with a black hole were found, except in two particular cases, according to researchers from Spain and India.
Pulsars are very dense neutron stars that are the size of a city (their radius approaches ten kilometres), which, like lighthouses for the universe, emit gamma radiation beams or X-rays when they rotate up to hundreds of times per second. These characteristics make them ideal for testing the validity of the theory of general relativity, published by Einstein between 1915 and 1916.
“Pulsars act as very precise timekeepers, such that any deviation in their pulses can be detected,” Diego F. Torres, ICREA researcher from the Institute of Space Sciences (IEEC-CSIC), explains to SINC. “If we compare the actual measurements with the corrections to the model that we have to use in order for the predictions to be correct, we can set limits or directly detect the deviation from the base theory.”
These deviations can occur if there is a massive object close to the pulsar, such as another neutron star or a white dwarf. A white dwarf can be defined as the stellar remnant left when stars such as our Sun use up all of their nuclear fuel. The binary systems, comprised of a pulsar and a neutron star (including double pulsar systems) or a white dwarf, have been very successfully used to verify the theory of gravity.
Until now scientists had considered the strange pulsar/black hole pairing to be an authentic ‘holy grail’ for examining gravity, but there exist at least two cases where other pairings can be more effective. This is what is stated in the study that Torres and the physicist Manjari Bagchi, from the International Centre of Theoretical Sciences (India) and now postdoc at the IEEC-CSIC, have published in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics. The work also received an Honourable Mention in the 2014 Essays of Gravitation prize.
The first case occurs when the so-called principle of strong equivalence is violated. This principle of the theory of relativity indicates that the gravitational movement of a body that we test only depends on its position in space-time and not on what it is made up of, which means that the result of any experiment in a free fall laboratory is independent of the speed of the laboratory and where it is found in space and time.
The other possibility is if one considers a potential variation in the gravitational constant that determines the intensity of the gravitational pull between bodies. Its value is G = 6.67384(80) x 10-11 N m2/kg2. Despite it being a constant, it is one of those that is known with the least accuracy, with a precision of only one in 10,000.
In these two specific cases, the pulsar-black hole combination would not be the perfect ‘holy grail’, but in any case scientists are anxious to find this pair, because it could be used to analyse the majority of deviations. In fact, it is one of the desired objectives of X-ray and gamma ray space telescopes (such as Chandra, NuStar or Swift), as well as that of large radio telescopes that are currently being built, such as the enormous ‘Square Kilometre Array’ (SKA) in Australia and South Africa.
The image at the top of the page shows dynamic rings, wisps and jets of matter and antimatter around the pulsar in the Crab Nebula as observed in X-ray light by Chandra Space Observatory in 2001.
Manjari Bagchi y Diego F. Torres. “In what sense a neutron star−black hole binary is the holy grail for testing gravity?”. Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, 2014. Doi:10.1088/1475-7516/2014/08/055.
See the full article here.
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