Astronomers Discover Black Hole That Wobbles, Puffs and Pulls on Spacetime

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Artist’s impression of V404 Cygni seen close up. The binary star system consists of a normal star in orbit with a black hole. Material from the star falls towards the black hole and spirals inwards in an accretion disk. (Photo: ICRAR)

Located 8,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus dwells a black hole system unlike any other ever observed before.

In a new study published in the journal Nature, a team of astronomers say the black hole, named V404 Cygni, appears to wobble like a top, firing out jets of plasma like searchlights in the night.

"This is one of the most extraordinary black hole systems I've ever come across," lead author and associate professor James Miller-Jones of Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) said in a statement. "Like many black holes, it's feeding on a nearby star, pulling gas away from the star and forming a disk of material that encircles the black hole and spirals towards it under gravity."

This spinning swirl of matter, called an accretion disc, is what astronomers captured in their historic first image of a different black hole earlier this month. What makes V404's particular version unique is that it's apparently misaligned with the gaping black hole at its center.

"This appears to be causing the inner part of the disk to wobble like a spinning top and fire jets out in different directions as it changes orientation," added Miller-Jones.

A wobble predicted by Einstein

Artist's impression of jet ejections in V404 Cygni
Artist's impression of jet ejections in V404 Cygni. (Photo: ICRAR)

According to the researchers, the extreme wobble of V404 Cygni is caused by the black hole at its heart pulling at the very fabric of space and time. Called frame-dragging, it's a phenomenon predicted in Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity.

As the estimated 6.2 million wide accretion disc around V404 spins ever faster near its center, the gravitational forces become so extreme that they drag spacetime along. When black holes consume large quantities of matter, as V404 did under observation in 2015, the presence of careening plasma jets is even more pronounced from its wobbly core.

"You can think of it like the wobble of a spinning top as it slows down — only in this case, the wobble is caused by Einstein's theory of general relativity," said Miller-Jones.

Even more surprising to the research team was the extreme activity exhibited by V404, with jet expulsion occurring at unprecedented speeds. As a result, the long exposures generally used by radio telescopes to capture such phenomenon were rendered useless.

"Typically, radio telescopes produce a single image from several hours of observation," co-author Alex Tetarenko, an East Asian Observatory Fellow working in Hawaii, said. "But these jets were changing so fast that in a four-hour image we just saw a blur."

Instead, the team captured 103 individual images with exposures of about 70 seconds long and compiled them into a movie. You can see that footage, as well as an animation of the V404, in the video below.