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Black hole flare observed by a MSU professor

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A black hole flare was observed by a Morehead State University professor.

Dirk Grupe, an associate professor of astrophysics and space science at MSU, used NASA’s NuSTAR to observe a flare from one of the biggest known blackholes during April of this year. The observation was made alongside Stephanie Komossa at the Max Plank Institute of Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany according to MSU.

Black Hole Flare

NuSTAR, an x-ray telescope that was involved in observing the black hole flare. Submitted by Dirk Grupe.

“This particular flare is the aftermath from the flare we saw in 2017, when the secondary black hole went through the accretion disk,” said Grupe. “It was predicted that it would happen in January of this year and we saw it in April.”

According to a MSU press release, OJ 287 is a blazar hosting a black hole with a mass 18 billion times that of the Sun at a distance of five billion lightyears. Not only is this one of the most massive black holes in existence, but observation suggests it is a binary black hole system. OJ 287 is orbited by a smaller companion black hole that is 150 million times more massive than the Sun. 

These black holes are about 1000 times and 40 times more massive than the black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy. OJ 287 is the only plunging binary supermassive black hole system currently known and provides a unique laboratory to study black hole feeding, jet formation, and general relativity.  

Black Hole Flare

A model explaining how the secondary black hole’s orbit shifts as it orbits the primary black hole. Submitted by Dirk Grupe.

“In order to get matter onto the black hole you have to have friction involved,” said Grupe. “The secondary black hole plunges into the accretion disk, which caused the primary flare. What causes the flaring every 12 years is when the secondary black hole hits the accretion disk it accretes matter and becomes luminous and that’s the x-ray flares that we see. The flare that we saw in April was the aftermath of the original flare and is a flaring of the primary black hole.”

An accretion disk is mostly circular mass of materials that are orbiting the black hole as well as descending into it.

“The prediction was that we would see an after flare so to speak in 2020, and that’s exactly what we saw,” said Grupe. 

Black Hole Flare

A diagram that shows where a flare would in the secondary black hole’s orbit. Submitted by Dirk Grupe.

Students weren’t a part of the project, but those in the space program can get involved with Grupe and learn firsthand how to use the technology and how to analyze the data.