Listen to the X-ray echoes of a black hole as it devours a companion star

The sound of a binary black hole’s echoes, courtesy of MIT’s Erin Kara and Kyle Keane. Animation computed by Michal Dovciak.

Black holes feeding on companion stars can go through cycles where they emit high-energy outbursts. MIT astronomers are using X-ray echoes from those cycles to map out the environment around these exotic objects, similar to how bats map out their environment via echolocation. The astronomers hope to use this new data to learn more about the evolution of these kinds of black hole systems, and by extension, the formation of galaxies, according to a new paper published in the Astrophysical Journal.

“The role of black holes in galaxy evolution is an outstanding question in modern astrophysics,” said co-author Erin Kara of MIT. “These black hole binaries appear to be ‘mini’ supermassive black holes, and so by understanding the outbursts in these small, nearby systems, we can understand how similar outbursts in supermassive black holes affect the galaxies in which they reside.”

As we’ve reported previously, it’s a popular misconception that black holes behave like cosmic vacuum cleaners, ravenously sucking up any matter in their surroundings. In reality, only stuff that passes beyond the event horizon—including light—is swallowed up and can’t escape, although black holes are also messy eaters. That means that part of an object’s matter is ejected in a powerful jet.

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