Magnetism helps black holes blow off gas

GRO J1655-40
WIND POWER A black hole steals gas from a normal star in this artist’s illustration of the binary star system GRO J1655-40. Most of the gas is pulled into an inward-spiraling disk (red) around the black hole, but winds driven by magnetic fields blow some gas away.

Black holes are a bit like babies when they eat: Some food goes in, and some gets flung back out into space. Astronomers now say they understand how these meals become so messy — and it’s a trait all black holes share, no matter their size.

Magnetic fields drive the turbulent winds that blow gas away from black holes, says Keigo Fukumura, an astrophysicist at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. Using X-rays emitted from a relatively small black hole siphoning gas from a nearby star, Fukumura and colleagues traced the winds flowing from the disk of stellar debris swirling around the black hole. Modeling these winds showed that magnetism, not other means, got the gas moving in just the right way.

The model was previously used to explain the way winds flow around black holes millions of times the mass of the sun. Showing that the model now also works for a smaller stellar-mass black hole suggests that magnetism may drive winds in black holes of all sizes. These results, published online March 6 in Nature Astronomy, could give clues to how black holes consume and expel matter and also to why some galaxies stop forming stars.

Astronomers first proposed that magnetic fields powered the winds around black holes in the 1970s, but the idea has been controversial. Directly observing the winds is impossible. Their existence is inferred by a black hole’s X-ray spectrum — an inventory of light…

Black hole enjoys fantastically long stellar feast

supermassive black hole
SLOW EATER A supermassive black hole has set a record for the longest meal, slurping on a single star for more than 10 years. In this artist’s illustration of the event, gas from the star (red) falls toward the black hole, while a wind blows the other way (blue).

Black holes are speed eaters, usually scarfing down a star in less than a year. But a supermassive black hole in a galaxy about 1.8 billion light-years away has been gorging on a single star for more than 10 years – longer than any other observed…

Astronomers Find Seven ‘Earth-Like’ Planets Orbiting a Cool Star

Astronomers say they’ve discovered seven Earth-sized planets in tight orbit around a cool, dim star about 39 light-years from us—and all seven are located in the habitable zone that could potentially host life. This is the first time a planetary system oriented to this kind of star has been detected—and its discovery holds the potential to lead us to a lot more exoplanets. An international team of researchers reported their findings in a letter published today in the journal Nature.

“It’s the first time we have seven planets in this temperate zone … that can be called terrestrial,” lead author Michaël Gillon, of Belgium’s Université de Liège, said in a press briefing. “So many is really, really surprising.”

TRAPPIST-1 is an ultracool dwarf star that’s 1/80th the brightness of the Sun and similar in size to Jupiter. All seven planets in its system are within 20 percent of the size and mass of Earth, and their density measurements indicate they’re likely of rocky composition. They’re clutched by TRAPPIST-1 in tight orbits—all would fit well within the orbit of Mercury. But unlike in our solar system, where such closeness to a hot star renders life impossible, the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system, with its cool celestial heart, could potentially host liquid water and organic molecules.

The first three planets were spotted in early 2016 by some of the same researchers involved in the current findings, including Gillon. As the planets cross in front of the star during their orbits, they cause the star, which emits light in the infrared, to briefly dim. Such transits, or eclipses, provide a common way for astronomers to detect exoplanets.

Using telescopes in Chile, South Africa, Spain, the UK, and Morocco, the researchers followed up on these transit signals multiple times in 2016, most notably in late September with a 20-day, nearly continuous monitoring of the star using the Spitzer Space Telescope, currently located about 145 million miles from us in an Earth-trailing orbit around the Sun. By moving our view off the Earth, researchers were able to detect 34 separate transits. This turned out to be the result of seven planets—six in near-resonant orbit—crossing in front of their home star. (The transit of the seventh was detected only once, so the orbit of this planet, known as TRAPPIST-h, hasn’t been determined yet.)

The planets have relatively narrow surface temperature fluctuations—about 100 degrees—despite their proximity to their home star. (Compare that to Mercury, which has temperature variations of nearly 1200F.) The researchers write that three of the planets—E, F, and G—“could harbor water oceans on their surfaces,…