Black holes get indigestion after a stellar feast


(ESA advanced concepts team; S. Brunier /ESO)

We’ve all been there.

We gobble down a delicious meal, and not so long after our stomach starts to rumble, indicating a build up that leads to melismatic release of gas through our mouths. Also known as burping.

It turns out that black holes are just like us. The ancient devourers of light have been recorded ‘burping’ several times before, but this time scientists have seen something special. This one black hole—let’s call it Chad—let out a double ‘burp’, and it’s gotten researchers pretty excited. “Why?” you ask?

Well, when matter gets too close to a black hole, it gets sucked in. But a portion of the energy is expelled in what has come to be known as a ‘burp’. This, however, isn’t new information.

“Black holes are voracious eaters, but it turns out they don’t have very good table manners,” said Julie Comerford, from the University of Colorado. “There are a lot of examples of black holes with single burps emanating out, but we discovered a galaxy with a supermassive black hole that has not one but two burps.”

The ‘burp’ is actually a stream of high energy particles being flung back out into the vacuum of space. The remains of its last meal spewed all over the cosmic dinner table for everyone else to smell.

A stream of matter being ejected

The Hubble and Chandra space telescopes detected an emerging belch from Chad about 800 million light years away, but they’ve also detected remains of an earlier ‘burp’ from approximately 100,000 years earlier.

Chad is, in fact, a supermassive black hole — the kind found at the centre of most big galaxies. Earlier X-ray emissions from the galaxy allowed Chandra to pinpoint the location of its central black hole.

The fact of the multiple excretions lends further evidence to the theory that black holes go through a cycle of feasting, burping and napping. Black holes are expected to become brighter while it eats, and then darker when it naps.

An illustration of a black hole consuming a star before it burps. (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Swift)

“Theory predicted that black holes should flicker on and off very quickly and this galaxy’s evidence of black holes does flicker on timescales of 100,000 years – which is long in human timescales, but in cosmological timescales is very fast,” said Julie Comerford.

The two burps might be the result of two meals. The galaxy that Chad calls home recently collided with another galaxy, meaning there would be plenty of food to eat; Chad is all about the gains.

“There’s a stream of stars and gas connecting these two galaxies. That collision led gas to stream towards the supermassive black hole and feed it two separate meals that led to these two separate burps,” said the University of Colorado researcher.

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Obaid Haroon

Obaid is a perpetual reader, writer, martial artist, medieval weapon enthusiast, and occasional engineer. He contains multitudes.

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