New Evidence for Black Holes
By seeing almost nothing, astronomers say they've
discovered something extraordinary: the event horizons of black
holes in space.
An event horizon is the theorized "one-way ticket" boundary around a black hole from which nothing, not even light, can escape. No object except for a black hole can have an event horizon, so evidence for its existence offers resounding proof of black holes in space.
Right: Gravity draws gas from a companion star onto a black hole in a swirling pattern. As the gas nears the event horizon, a strong gravitational red shift makes it appear redder and dimmer. When the gas finally crosses the event horizon, it disappears from view; the region within the event horizon appears black. Click on the image for awith gas falling onto a neutron star.
By using data from Chandra and previous X-ray satellites, a team of researchers studied a dozen "X-ray novae" -- systems that containeither a black hole or neutron star. By comparing the energy output of different types of X-ray novae while they were inactive, the Chandra team determined that systems suspected of harboring black holes emitted only one percent as much energy as systems with neutron stars.
Sign up for EXPRESS SCIENCE NEWS delivery
If a collapsed star is a neutron star with a solid surface, energy must be released when infalling material strikes that surface. In contrast, if the accreting object is a black hole, only aof energy can escape before it crosses the event horizon and vanishes forever.
"Seeing just this tiny amount of energy escape from the black hole sources is like sitting upstream watching water seemingly disappear over the edge," said Ramesh Narayan, also of the Chandra team. "The most straightforward explanation for our observations is that these objects have event horizons and, therefore, are black holes."
Scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope took an entirely different approach. Joseph F. Dolan, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, observed pulses of ultraviolet light from clumps of hot gas fade and then disappear as they swirled around a massive, compact object called Cygnus XR-1.
Hubble, measuring fluctuations in ultraviolet light from gas trapped in orbit and around the black hole found two examples of a so-called "dying pulse train," the rapidly decaying, precisely sequential flashes of light from a hot blob of gas spiraling into the black hole.
Without an event horizon, the blob of gas would have brightened as it crashed onto the surface of the accreting body. One event had six decaying pulses; the other had seven pulses. The results are consistent withif matter were really falling into a black hole, Dolan said.
Left: An artist's concept of a black hole. Click on the image to see an animation (3.4 MB mpeg) of how matter falling into a black hole might look.
Chandra researchers used the Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer for exposure times that vary roughly from 10,000 to 40,000 seconds per object. Hubble's high-speed photometer sampled light at the rate of 100,000 measurements per second, during three separate Hubble orbits, executed in June, July and August of 1992.
The Space Telescope Science Institute is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., for NASA under contract with Goddard Space Flight Center. The Hubble Space Telescope is a cooperative project between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian's Chandra X-ray Center controls science and flight operations from Cambridge, MA. The Chandra work was also supported by funds from the National Science Foundation.Web Links
Hubble Space Telescope News -- more information on the discovery
Chandra press release -- more information on the discovery
Chandra X-ray Observatory -- NASA Web site for the orbiting observatory
Space Telescope Science Institute -- Home page for the organization that manages the Hubble Space Telescope
Join our growing list of subscribers - sign up for our express news delivery and you will receive a mail message every time we post a new story!!!
|The Science and Technology Directorate at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center sponsors the Science@NASA web sites. The mission of Science@NASA is to help the public understand how exciting NASA research is and to help NASA scientists fulfill their outreach responsibilities.|
|For lesson plans and educational activities related to breaking science news, please visit Thursday's Classroom||
Production Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips
Curator: Bryan Walls
Media Relations: Steve Roy
Responsible NASA official: John M. Horack