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Black Holes Have Simple Feeding Habits

For Release: June 18, 2008

CXC Release

M81 Image Credit: NASA/CXC/Wisconsin/D.Pooley & CfA/A.Zezas; Optical: NASA/ESA/CfA/A.Zezas; UV: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CfA/J.Huchra et al.; IR: NASA/JPL-Caltech/CfA
Press Image and Caption

The biggest black holes may feed just like the smallest ones, according to data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and ground-based telescopes. This discovery supports the implication of Einstein's relativity theory that black holes of all sizes have similar properties, and will be useful for predicting the properties of a conjectured new class of black holes.

The conclusion comes from a large observing campaign of the spiral galaxy M81, which is about 12 million light years from Earth. In the center of M81 is a black hole that is about 70 million times more massive than the Sun, and generates energy and radiation as it pulls gas in the central region of the galaxy inwards at high speed.

In contrast, so-called stellar mass black holes, which have about 10 times more mass than the Sun, have a different source of food. These smaller black holes acquire new material by pulling gas from an orbiting companion star. Because the bigger and smaller black holes are found in different environments with different sources of material to feed from, a question has remained about whether they feed in the same way.

Using these new observations and a detailed theoretical model, a research team compared the properties of M81's black hole with those of stellar mass black holes. The results show that either big or little, black holes indeed appear to eat similarly to each other, and produce a similar distribution of X-rays, optical and radio light.

One of the implications of Einstein's theory of General Relativity is that black holes are simple objects and only their masses and spins determine their effect on space-time. The latest research indicates that this simplicity manifests itself in spite of complicated environmental effects.

"This confirms that the feeding patterns for black holes of different sizes can be very similar," said Sera Markoff of the Astronomical Institute, University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, who led the study. "We thought this was the case, but up until now we haven't been able to nail it."

The model that Markoff and her colleagues used to study the black holes includes a faint disk of material spinning around the black hole. This structure would mainly produce X-rays and optical light. A region of hot gas around the black hole would be seen largely in ultraviolet and X-ray light. A large contribution to both the radio and X-ray light comes from jets generated by the black hole. Multi-wavelength data is needed to disentangle these overlapping sources of light.

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