Search reveals eight new sources of black hole echoes

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Astronomers have discovered eight new black hole binaries that echo around our galaxy, allowing them to piece together a common picture of how a black hole moves in an explosion, according to a new study. Previously, only two such systems in the Milky Way were known to emit X-ray echoes.

In comparing the echoes across systems, the team has pieced together a general picture of how a black hole evolves during an outburst. Across all systems, they observed that a black hole first undergoes a “hard” state, whipping up a corona of high-energy photons along with a jet of relativistic particles that is launched away at close to the speed of light. The researchers discovered that at a certain point, the black hole gives off one final, high-energy flash, before transitioning to a “soft,” low-energy state.

This final flash may be a sign that a black hole’s corona, the region of high-energy plasma just outside a black hole’s boundary, briefly expands, ejecting a final burst of high-energy particles before disappearing entirely. These findings could help to explain how larger, supermassive black holes at the center of a galaxy can eject particles across vastly cosmic scales to shape a galaxy’s formation.

“The role of black holes in galaxy evolution is an outstanding question in modern astrophysics,” says Erin Kara, assistant professor of physics at MIT. “Interestingly, these black hole binaries appear to be ‘mini’ supermassive black holes, and so by 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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