Galactic Cardiology: ‘Heart’ Of Black Hole Still Beating After 10 Years

DURHAM, England — Discovered in 2007, the first-ever confirmed “heartbeat” of a supermassive black hole is still going strong. The sun had blocked the black hole from our x-ray satellites for the past few years, but according to a new study from Durham University, a new heartbeat signal was recently picked up.

A black hole’s “heartbeat” refers to the rate at which matter comes into contact with it; as matter falls into the black hole, bursts of energy are released repeatedly. That pattern is often similar to the rhythmic beat of a heart.

Black hole "heartbeat"
A black hole including the heartbeat signal observed in 2007 and 2018. (Image courtesy: Dr Chichuan Jin, of the National Astronomical Observatories, Chinese Academy of Sciences and NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab.)

Astronomers say this is the longest lasting black hole heartbeat known to man at this point. Furthermore, studying its heartbeat provides information on the black hole itself, as well as the size and shape of its surrounding environment. That area, called its event horizon, is the region right around the black hole that allows nothing, not even light, to escape.

History Of The Mysterious Black Hole ‘Heartbeat’

Back in 2007, the black hole was first discovered 600 million light years away from our planet, in the center of a galaxy called RE J1034+396. It repeats a signal, or heartbeat, every hour. In 2011, the sun blocked out satellites from observing the black hole, but in 2018 the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray satellite was able to start observing and recording the mysterious cosmic phenomenon once again.

Researchers admit they were shocked to see that the black hole’s heart was still beating at the same pace seven years later. It wasn’t that surprising that the black hole was still active, but the fact that it has been releasing bursts of energy so regularly for so long is very noteworthy.

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“The main idea for how this heartbeat is formed is that the inner parts of the accretion disc are expanding and contracting. The only other system we know which seems to do the same thing is a 100,000 times smaller stellar-mass black hole in our Milky Way, fed by a binary companion star, with correspondingly smaller luminosities and timescales,” explains Professor Chris Done, from Durham University’s Centre for Extragalactic Astronomy, in a release. “This shows us that simple scalings with black hole mass work even for the rarest types of behavior.”

“This heartbeat is amazing!” says lead author Dr Chichuan Jin of the National Astronomical Observatories, Chinese Academy of Sciences. “It proves that such signals arising from a supermassive black hole can be very strong and persistent. It also provides the best opportunity for scientists to further investigate the nature and origin of this heartbeat signal.”

The study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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