Hear the sound of a black hole feeding on stellar material

A team of MIT scientists is searching for echoes from black holes in an effort to shed some light on regions of space-time that largely remain a mystery to us. See, black holes only show any semblance of activity when they feed on gas and dust from one of their orbiting stars. When they do, they emit bursts of X-ray light that echo off the consuming gas and illuminate their surroundings. That’s what a black hole echo is. While technically an X-ray echo, the team worked with education and music scholars at MIT to convert the emission into audible sound waves that you can hear below.

For their new study, astronomers developed an automated search tool called the “Reverberation Machine” to analyze data collected by NASA’s Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer, the X-ray telescope aboard the ISS. Their algorithm identified 26 black hole X-ray binary systems, which are systems with a star that is sometimes being consumed by a black hole. Ten of them are close enough for echoes to be observable, and eight were previously not known to emit echoes.

So what did the team discover by analyzing the echoes? They found that black holes initially go through a “hard” state when feeding, in which they form a corona of high-energy photons and launch a jet of high-energy particles near the speed of light. This state lasts several weeks. After a final high-energy flash as the corona and jet die down, the black hole enters a “soft” low-energy state.

Scientists believe these findings may help explain how supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies can help shape their formation. As Erin Kara, an assistant professor of physics at MIT, put it:

“The role of black holes in the evolution of galaxies is an open question in modern astrophysics. Interestingly, these black hole binaries appear to be ‘mini’ supermassive black holes, so 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.”

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