In 2014, the supermassive black hole known as Markarian 335 was observed mysteriously ejecting an object into space. Located near the constellation of Pegasus, some 324 million light-years from Earth, the black hole is one of the heaviest and quickest spinning ever observed – a true colossus that turns so fast that it pulls space and time in with it.
The phenomenon was observed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – NASA – the U.S. government agency responsible for the study of galactic events. NASA was founded by President Dwight. D. Eisenhower in 1958, less than a year after the Soviet Union had successfully launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first satellite, and placed it in orbit around the Earth.
Nevertheless, with the starting gun for the Space Race having been fired, it would be the Soviet Union which would bolster its lead with another major scientific milestone in 1961. On April 12 of that year, Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. America’s new leader, President Kennedy, subsequently announced that NASA would go further and put a man on the moon before the decade was over. Of course, the agency ultimately accomplished its goal, and Neil Armstrong famously won the race for the U.S. by being the first human to step on the lunar surface.
However, the last time NASA sent a manned flight to the moon was in 1972; these days the agency manages a range of programs dedicated to Earth science, heliophysics – or the physics of the Sun – and space exploration. NASA interplanetary probes such as New Horizons – which completed the world’s first fly-by of Pluto n 2015 – are reshaping our understanding of the solar system, while the agency’s Great Observatories program is collecting visual data from deep space using powerful telescopes such as the Hubble.
The event at Markarian 335 was detected using two instruments orbiting the Earth. The Neils Gehrels Swift Observatory, launched in 2004, is a satellite which measures Gamma-ray bursts. These are short, intense explosions of gamma radiation which have been occurring since the beginning of the universe, currently at a rate of one a day. Meanwhile, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array – otherwise known as the NuSTAR – carries two orbital X-ray telescopes and has been capable of observing black holes and other deep-space phenomena since it came on stream in 2012.
Black holes consist of extremely dense physical matter and there are three main types – primordial, stellar and supermassive. The primordial examples were created eons ago in the wake of the Big Bang. Stellar versions are created during the death of a large star. And supermassive black holes appear to be placed at the center of all large galaxies.
One of the defining characteristics of a black hole is its extremely powerful gravity pull. Indeed, the phenomena exert such gravitational force on their surroundings that not even light can resist their attraction. But it is the very powerful fact that black holes exert such tremendous gravity that appears to be at odds with the claim that the supermassive Markarian 335 ejected an object into space.
In fact, the “object” detected by the Swift and NuStar satellites was a massive flare of X-rays. As a type of electromagnetic radiation, X-rays cannot escape a black hole, let alone blast out of it. However, the eruption of this radiation from Markarian 335 actually originated just outside the hole and beyond its event horizon – the point at which its gravitational field becomes impossible to resist.
According to NASA, the flare originated from the black hole’s corona – a body of energized particles which produce X-ray radiation. Relatively little is known about the appearance and formation of coronas, but the detection of the flare at Markarian 335 helped to settle some on-going scientific disputes.
Indeed, Fiona Harrison is the Leadership Chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. In addition, the academic is the lead investigator for NASA’s NuSTAR mission. She was quoted by the agency in a news report published in October 2015. Harrison said, “The nature of the energetic source of X-rays we call the corona is mysterious, but now, with the ability to see dramatic changes like this, we are getting clues about its size and structure.”
In fact, there are two main theories to explain the composition of coronas. The so-called “lamppost” model asserts that coronas consist of compacted light sources which can be visualized as light bulbs. The alternative hypothesis suggests that coronas are diffuse clouds that encircle a black hole. Ultimately, NASA’s observations of Markarian 335 tend to support the lamppost theory.
The observation of Markarian 335 actually began back in 2007 when researchers from Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada, picked up on a curious diminishment in the X-ray light emitted by its corona. Then, in September 2014, Swift detected a massive flare event, prompting NASA to point NuSTAR at the rare occurance. The data the space agency collected appears to depict the expulsion of the black hole’s corona.
And Dan Wilkins, post-doctoral Fellow at Saint Mary’s University’s Department of Astronomy and Physics, was also quoted by NASA in October 2015, speaking about Markarian 335’s flare up. “The corona gathered inward at first and then launched upwards like a jet,” the academic said. “We still don’t know how jets in black holes form, but it’s an exciting possibility that this black hole’s corona was beginning to form the base of a jet before it collapsed.”
Furthermore, the flare was accompanied by a brightening of X-ray light – a phenomenon known as relativistic Doppler boosting – which researchers think was caused by movement within Markarian 335’s corona. In fact, the particle body appeared to launch its flare and brighten after reaching accelerated speeds of one-fifth of the speed of light.
And this observation obviously enthused Wilkins. “This is the first time we have been able to link the launching of the corona to a flare,” he explained to NASA. “This will help us understand how supermassive black holes power some of the brightest objects in the universe.”
Indeed, research has already moved on since the excitement of Markarian 335’s flare up in 2014. For example, four years later in June 2018, astronomers captured sensational images of a supermassive black hole ejecting flares of material which had once constituted a star. Experts claim that after falling into the black hole’s orbit, the star had been torn apart and partially ejected.
In fact, the doomed star had been approximately twice as heavy as the Sun, but the black hole that swallowed it was approximately 20 million times larger than that celestial body. Such occurrences, known as tidal-disruption events, are rarely observed or captured.
Meanwhile, astronomers down under have detected a colossal black hole growing at such speed that it may be consuming the equivalent mass of half a Sun daily. The supermassive phenomena – which is thought to be more than 12 billion years old – was detected with the SkyMapper telescope at the Australian National University’s Siding Spring Observatory facility in New South Wales.
Indeed, Dr. Christian Wolf, a researcher at the university’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, put it in perspective when he spoke to U.K. tabloid the Daily Mail in May 2018. “The black hole is growing so rapidly that it’s shining thousands of times more brightly than an entire galaxy,” Wolf said. “If we had this monster sitting at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, it would appear ten times brighter than a full moon…”
Thankfully, that supermassive black hole is not at our galaxy’s center. In fact, the nearest example to Earth is the V616 Monocerotis, which is approximately 3,000 light years away. As such, traveling to black holes for further investigation is a physical impossibility. However, thanks to the advent of space-based telescopes, such as the Swift and the NuStar, humanity may yet be able to crack their secrets from a safe distance.