Read between the lines to model our galaxy’s central black hole

A flicker from the dark: reading between the lines to model our galaxy's central black hole

Simulation of glowing gas around a black hole. Credit: Chris White, Princeton University

Appearances are deceiving. The light from an incandescent lamp appears stable, but flickers 120 times per second. Because the brain perceives only an average of the information it receives, this flicker is fuzzy and the perception of constant lighting is just an illusion.

Although light cannot escape a black hole, the bright glow of rapidly spinning gas has its own unique flicker. In a recent article, published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, Lena Murchikova, William D. Loughlin Member at the Institute for Advanced Study; Chris White of Princeton University; and Sean Ressler of the University of California Santa Barbara were able to use this subtle flicker to build the most accurate model so far from the central black hole of our own galaxy –Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*) – provides insight into properties such as structure and movement.

For the first time, researchers have shown in a single model the full story of how gas travels through the center of the Milky Way — from being blown away by stars to falling into the black hole. By reading between the proverbial lines (or flickering light), the team concluded that the most likely picture of a black hole feeding in the galactic center involves direct entry of gas from great distances, rather than a slow transfer of material into orbit over a long period of time.

Simulation of glowing gas around a black hole. Credit: Chris White, Princeton University

“Black holes are the gatekeepers of their own secrets,” Murchikova said. “To better understand these mysterious objects, we depend on direct observation and high-resolution modeling.”

Although the existence of black holes Predicted about 100 years ago by Karl Schwarzschild, based on Albert Einstein’s new theory of gravity, researchers are only now beginning to explore them through observations.

In October 2021, Murchikova published a paper in Astrophysical Journal Letters, which introduced a method to study black hole flicker on a timescale of a few seconds instead of a few minutes. This advancement allowed a more accurate quantification of the properties of Sgr A* based on its flicker.

White has worked on the details of what happens to the gas near black holes (where the strong effects of general relativity are important) and how it affects the light coming toward us. A Astrophysical Journal publication earlier this year summarizes some of his findings.

Ressler has spent years trying to create the most realistic simulations to date of the gas around Sgr A*. He did this by including observations of nearby stars directly into the simulations and closely monitoring what material they release when it falls into the black hole. His recent work culminated in a Astrophysical Journal Letters paper in 2020.

Murchikova, White and Ressler then teamed up to compare the observed flickering pattern of Sgr A* with that predicted by their respective numerical models.

“The result turned out to be very interesting,” explains Murchikova. “For a long time, we thought we could largely ignore where the gas around the black hole came from. Typical models imagine an artificial ring of gas, roughly shaped like a donut, some great distance from the black hole. We discovered that such models produce patterns of flicker that are inconsistent with observations.”

Ressler’s stellar wind model takes a more realistic approach, where the gas consumed by black holes is originally repelled by stars near the galactic center. When this gas falls into the black hole, it reproduces the correct flicker pattern. “The model was not built with the intention of explaining this particular phenomenon. Success was by no means a guarantee,” Ressler said. “So it was very encouraging to see the model having such great success after years of work.”

“If we study flicker, we can see changes in the amount of light emitted by the black hole, second by second, and take thousands of measurements over the course of a single night,” explains White. “However, this does not tell us how the gas is arranged in space, as a large-scale image would. By combining these two types of observations, it is possible to reduce the constraints of each, yielding the most authentic image.”

NASA visualization rounds out the best-known black hole systems

More information:
Lena Murchikova et al, Notable Correspondence of the Sagittarius A* Submillimeter Variability with a Stellar Wind-fed Accretion Flow Model, The astrophysical journal letters (2022). DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/ac75c3

Lena Murchikova et al, Second-scale submillimeter variability of Sagittarius A* during 2019 flare activity: on the origin of bright near infrared flames, The astrophysical journal letters (2021). DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/ac2308

Christopher J. White et al, The Effects of Tilt on the Time Variability of Millimeter and Infrared Emission from Sagittarius A*, The Astrophysical Journal (2022). DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/ac423c

Sean M. Ressler et al, Ab Initio Horizon-scale simulations of magnetically arrested accretion in Sagittarius A* fueled by Stellar Winds, The Astrophysical Journal (2020). DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/ab9532

Quote: A flicker from the dark: reading between the lines to model our galaxy’s central black hole (2022, June 22) retrieved June 24, 2022 from dark-lines-galaxy-central.html

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