The Black Hole Outburst

Boom. Did you hear that? Probably not. Didn’t see it, either. Not unless you were tapped into NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. So that’s why we’ve provided this lovely picture. What you are looking at is an extraordinary outburst by a black hole in the spiral galaxy M83, which is located, oh, about 15 million light years from Earth.

Using Chandra, a team of astronomers, including Frank Winkler, the Gamaliel Painter Bicentennial Professor of Physics at Middlebury, discovered what they call “a new ultraluminous X-ray source (ULX)—objects that give off more X-rays than most ‘normal’ binary star systems in which a companion star is in orbit around a neutron star or black hole.”

The astronomers report that in Chandra observations that spanned several years, “the ULX in M83 increased in X-ray brightness by at least 3,000 times. This sudden brightening is one of the largest changes in X-rays ever seen for this type of object.”

According to the astronomers, the jump in X-ray brightness “likely occurred because of a sudden increase in the amount of material falling into the black hole,” which they believe is a “sure sign that [they] have discovered something new about the way black holes grow.”

Winkler is one of the authors of a paper that describes these results, which was recently published in the Astrophysical Journal.

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