A Curtin University astronomer is a step closer to understanding how black holes launch superfast ‘bullets’ of gas into space, by identifying the exact moment when the bullets form.
Combining observations from a NASA satellite and a radio telescope, principal investigator James Miller-Jones led a team of radio astronomers from around the world to make the discovery.
Dr Miller-Jones said identifying the moment when the bullets of gas were launched would help radio astronomers better understand the physics of how and why black holes launch fast-moving flows of material outwards.
“The research focuses on star systems called X-ray binaries,” Dr Miller-Jones said.
“These are double-star systems in which a normal star is in a very close orbit with a black hole.
“Due to their proximity, gas from the normal star is pulled in towards the black hole by its enormous gravitational field.
Dr Miller-Jones said that some of the gas spiralling inwards is flung outwards in narrow beams of ionized gas called ‘jets’, probably with the help of very strong magnetic fields.
“This same process is seen in many different types of systems throughout the universe, from forming young stars to feeding black holes, both in binary systems and at the centres of galaxies, and also in the hyper-energetic explosions known as gamma-ray bursts,” he said.
“The jets are launched at speeds approaching that of light in an outburst producing about as much energy in an hour as the sun emits in five years.
“We have been studying these jets to try to understand how they form and the impact they have on their surroundings.”
Dr Miller-Jones said the same physics should apply to all black holes that are gobbling up matter from more normal stars. So the next step would be to see if the same sequence of events was seen in other, similar systems.
If so, it would demonstrate that the process is universal.