Black Hole IGR J17091-3624

An international team of astronomers has identified a candidate for the smallest-known black hole using data from NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE). The evidence comes from a specific type of X-ray pattern, nicknamed a “heartbeat” because of its resemblance to an electrocardiogram. The pattern until now has been recorded in only one other black hole system.



after the astronomical coordinates of its sky position, the binary system combines a normal star with a black hole that may weigh less than three times the sun’s mass. That is near the theoretical mass boundary where black holes become possible.

Gas from the normal star streams toward the black hole and forms a disk around it. Friction within the disk heats the gas to millions of degrees, which is hot enough to emit X-rays. Cyclical variations in the intensity of the X-rays observed reflect processes taking place within the gas disk. Scientists think that the most rapid changes occur near the black hole’s event horizon, the point beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape.

Astronomers first became aware of the binary system during an outburst in 2003. Archival data from various space missions show it becomes active every few years. Its most recent outburst started in February and is ongoing. The system is located in the direction of the constellation Scorpius, but its distance is not well established. It could be as close as 16,000 light-years or more than 65,000 light-years away.

The record-holder for wide-ranging X-ray variability is another black hole binary system named GRS 1915+105. This system is unique in displaying more than a dozen highly structured patterns, typically lasting between seconds and hours.

“We think that most of these patterns represent cycles of accumulation and ejection in an unstable disk, and we now see seven of them in IGR J17091,” said Tomaso Belloni at Brera Observatory in Merate, Italy. “Identifying these signatures in a second black hole system is very exciting.”



In GRS 1915, strong magnetic fields near the black hole’s event horizon eject some of the gas into dual, oppositely directed jets that blast outward at about 98 percent the speed of light. The peak of its heartbeat emission corresponds to the emergence of the jet.

Changes in the X-ray spectrum observed by RXTE during each beat reveal that the innermost region of the disk emits enough radiation to push back the gas, creating a strong outward wind that stops the inward flow, briefly starving the black hole and shutting down the jet. This corresponds to the faintest emission. Eventually, the inner disk gets so bright and hot it essentially disintegrates and plunges toward the black hole, re-establishing the jet and beginning the cycle anew. This entire process happens in as little as 40 seconds.

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