NASA is observing a black hole that is part of the binary star system V404 Cygni. The system is located 7,800 light years from Earth, and the black hole is actively slurping dust and material from its companion star. Its companion star has about half the mass of the sun.
Although we cannot see the black hole itself, the material it collects from its companion star has formed into a disk around the black hole. The disk is visible because it glows in x-rays, resulting in the name « x-ray binaries ». The X-ray flash from V404 Cygni was discovered on June 5, 2015 using the Swift Observatory.
The burst generated high-energy rings resulting from so-called light echoes. The light echoes were created when black hole x-rays bounced off clouds of dust between V404 Cygni and Earth. NASA notes that the clouds of dust in space are not like dust that you could clean up in your home, but rather like smoke made from tiny solid particles.
The above image is a new composite image in X-rays with data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory in light blue and optical data from the PAN-STARRS telescope showing stars in the field of view. NASA’s image shows concentric rings created by X-rays emitted by V404 Cygni flares observed in 2015 reflected from various clouds of dust.
The NASA image is simplified and shows only four of the eight rings. Scientists analyzed 50 observations with Swift in 2015, made between June 30th and August 25th. Chandra observed the system between July 11th and 25th of the same year. The rings are interesting because they allow astronomers to learn details about the behavior of the black hole and the landscape between V404 Cygni and Earth.
NASA says that the diameter of the rings in X-rays highlights the distances from the clouds of dust that the light was acting on. When the cloud is closer to the earth, the rings appear larger and vice versa. Narrower rings indicate that the X-ray beam lasted a shorter time compared to wider rings.
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