National Radio Astronomy Observatory

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For Immediate Release
June 8, 1995

Contact: Dave Finley (505) 835-7302

Emerging Picture of Black Hole in Double-Star System

Promises Exciting Yield of New Physics Data

As scientists from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) report on analysis of "moving pictures" of powerful jets of material emerging from a double-star system 10,000 light-years away, new evidence from other research confirms that the source of the jets is a black hole. A series of images made with the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) and Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescopes, made by Robert Hjellming and Michael Rupen of NRAO, appears in the June 8 issue of the scientific journal Nature. When these radio "snapshots" of jets emerging from an X-ray nova in the constellation Scorpius were made in August and September of 1994, the source of the jets was only suspected of harboring a black hole.

It is now certain that a black hole is the source of the jets, thanks to an intense observing effort using ground-and space-based telescopes at wavelengths ranging from gamma rays to radio waves. The system, discovered only last year, with a star similar in size to our Sun orbiting the black hole, now promises to show astronomers -- at long last -- details of how black holes can power super-energetic jets of material to nearly the speed of light. The latest results come from studies made with radio and optical telescopes operated for the National Science Foundation.

Black holes are concentrations of matter so dense that their gravitational attraction prevents even light from escaping them.

"This is the first time we can say that one of the components of a jet-emitting binary is a black hole based on fundamental astronomy, rather than on fitting observational data to complicated models," said Hjellming, an NRAO astronomer in Socorro, NM. This resulted from observations of the object -- called GRO J1655-40 -- with instruments covering widely different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum -- observations that reinforced each other to make a solid case.

Researchers are excited about the discovery. It means, they say, that scientists can study this object and begin to focus on how a black-hole binary system produces jets. The object "will provide some real breakthroughs in the future," said Charles Bailyn of Yale University. Astronomers believe that the jets of material emitted by such systems arise somehow from a disk of material (called an accretion disk) orbiting the black hole. The material in the disk, pulled from the companion star by the powerful gravity of the black hole, is accelerated and heated as it nears the black hole. The new object "is the best known system for studying jets from accretion disks," Hjellming said.

While the black hole in GRO J1655-40 is only several times the mass of the Sun, supermassive black holes -- millions of times more massive than the sun -- are believed to lie at the hearts of active galaxies and quasars throughout the universe. Despite the great difference in mass, astronomers think the physical mechanisms by which all these black holes and accretion disks produce their powerful jets are similar.

That means, said Rupen, that GRO J1655-40 is now "THE key system for studying black holes and astrophysical jets. It's a fundamentally important object because we know many of its important parameters and we can observe it at all wavelengths. In addition, this is the perfect time to find it because we have satellites to observe it at X- and Gamma rays."

The extremely high-resolution images produced by NRAO's VLBA, Rupen said, already have shown that black hole-accretion disk systems and their jets are far more complicated than previously thought.

From a researcher's perspective, GRO J1655-40 "really is a system that has everything," said Bailyn.

Astronomers expect that further study of GRO J1655-40 will help answer key questions about the relationships among the black hole, the accretion disk, the jets and the companion star. The observations at many wavelengths are important to show links between the different parts of the system. In addition, it helps tremendously, the astronomers said, that the object is nearby, bright, and shows rapid changes.

The double-star system was discovered by the orbiting Compton Gamma Ray Observatory on July 27, 1994. Ten days later, it was found to be emitting radio waves by an Australian radio observatory. Since its discovery, it has undergone outbursts of both X-ray and radio emission. It is about 10,000 light-years distant, within our own Milky Way Galaxy.

Hjellming and Rupen used the VLA and VLBA radio telescopes, based in Socorro, NM, to study GRO J1655-40 in detail over several months. Their results, published in the June 8 Nature, show that the object has powerful jets of subatomic particles moving from its core at 92 percent of the speed of light. Some condensations in the jets even appeared to move faster than light, an illusion called superluminal motion.

The radio images made with the continent-wide VLBA show a complex set of motions and variations in the twin jets emitted in opposite directions by GRO J1655-40. Hjellming and Rupen found that outgoing material in the jets is following a "corkscrew" pattern, rotating around the central axis of the jets about every three days.

Another important piece of the puzzle was filled in this spring. Charles Bailyn and Jerome Orosz of Yale University, Jeff McClintock of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Ron Remillard of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used the 4-meter optical telescope at Cerro Tololo International Observatory (CTIO) in Chile to confirm that GRO J1655-40 is what astronomers call a spectroscopic binary -- a double star system revealed by examining its light when split into component wavelengths.

In addition, they used other CTIO telescopes to record the variations in light intensity from GRO J1655-40. This revealed the vital fact that the two objects in the system are regularly passing in front of each other, or eclipsing. This, along with the spectral information, allowed the astronomers to use standard techniques to calculate the masses of the two stars in GRO J1655-40. The results show that the larger one is more than 3 times the mass of the Sun -- a figure they said is "above the maximum stable mass of a neutron star, confirming the generally-held belief that the compact primary of this binary system is a black hole." The optical research was reported in a circular issued by the International Astronomical Union. CTIO is operated by the National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO).

The optical data indicate that the companion star is orbiting the black hole every 2.62 days, close to the period of the corkscrew motion in the jets seen by the radio observers.

The search for confirmed black holes has been long. As early as 1795, Pierre LaPlace noted that the "escape velocity" required to leave an astronomical body could, if the body consisted of sufficiently concentrated mass, reach the speed of light. In 1916, Karl Schwarzchild formulated the basic equation describing black holes. Astronomers speculated that massive stars, at the ends of their lives, could collapse into black holes. The idea was not received without resistance. In 1935, the famed physicist Arthur Eddington said there should be "a law of nature to prevent the star from behaving in this absurd way." Still, the theory of black holes progressed to become part of mainstream astronomy. A confirmed candidate for an actual black hole, however, remained elusive until recent years. When astrophysical jets of fast-moving particles were discovered, black holes were immediately suspected of being the source of their power, but confirmation of that suspicion also remained elusive.

GRO J1655-40 is within our own Milky Way Galaxy. In January, an international team of astronomers announced that, using the VLBA, they had measured orbital speeds in a disk of water molecules circling the core of another galaxy, NGC 4258, some 21 million light-years distant. Their measurements indicated that the disk of molecules was circling a central mass nearly 40 million times the mass of the Sun. That object remains the best candidate for a black hole outside the Milky Way.

The VLA, the VLBA and the Cerro Tololo International Observatory are facilities of the National Science Foundation.


The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation,
operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.