NASA’s Swift Satellite Discovers New Black Hole in Milky Way

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By IB Times Staff Reporter | October 6, 2012 7:29 PM EST

NASA's Swift satellite has discovered a previously unknown stellar-mass black hole in the center of the Milky Way Galaxy produced by the outburst of high energy X-Rays.

An X-ray nova is a short-lived X-ray source that emerges suddenly and reaches it emission peak in few days and then fades away over a period of months. The outburst occurs when a torrent of stored gas suddenly rushes toward one of the most compact objects known, either a neutron star or a black hole, said scientists.

The rapidly brightening source on Sep. 16, morning triggered the Swift's Burst Alert Telescope twice and the same thing happened on the following day.

"Bright X-ray novae are so rare that they're essentially once-a-mission events and this is the first one Swift has seen," said Neil Gehrels, the mission's principal investigator, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "This is really something we've been waiting for."

The nova, named Swift J1745-26 is located a few degrees from the center of our galaxy toward the constellation Sagittarius. Astronomers do not know the nova's exact distance, but they think that the object resides about 20,000 to 30,000 light-years away in the galaxy's inner region.

Ground-based observatories have identified infrared and radio emissions but astronomers couldn't catch Swift J1745-26 in detectable light because of the thick clouds of obscuring dust, according to the space agency.

The nova on Sep 18, produced hard X-rays with energies above 10,000 electron volts or several thousand times that of visible light when it reached an intensity equal to that of the famous Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant that serves as a calibration target for high-energy observatories and is considered as one of the brightest sources beyond the solar system at these energies.

"The pattern we're seeing is observed in X-ray novae where the central object is a black hole. Once the X-rays fade away, we hope to measure its mass and confirm its black hole status," said Boris Sbarufatti, an astrophysicist at Brera Observatory in Milan, Italy, who is currently working with other Swift team members at Penn State in University Park, Pa.

The black hole must be a member of a low-mass X-ray binary (LMXB) system, which includes a normal, sun-like star. A stream of gas flows from the normal star and enters a storage disk around the black hole, according to the scientists.

In most LMXBs, the gas in the disk spirals inward heats up as it heads toward the black hole and produces a steady stream of X-rays.

However, under some conditions, a stable flow within the disk depends on the rate of matter flowing into it from the companion star. At certain rates, the disk fails to maintain a steady internal flow and instead flips between two dramatically different conditions - a cooler, less ionized state, where gas simply collects in the outer portion of the disk like water behind a dam, and a hotter, more ionized state that sends a tidal wave of gas surging toward the center.

"Each outburst clears out the inner disk, and with little or no matter falling toward the black hole, the system ceases to be a bright source of X-rays," said John Cannizzo, a Goddard astrophysicist. "Decades later, after enough gas has accumulated in the outer disk, it switches again to its hot state and sends a deluge of gas toward the black hole, resulting in a new X-ray outburst." 

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