Artist's impression of a black hole's jets. Credit: NASA.
n international team of astronomers has identified a candidate for the smallest-known black hole using data from NASA's Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE). The evidence comes from a specific type of X-ray pattern, nicknamed a "heartbeat" because of its resemblance to an electrocardiogram. The pattern until now has been recorded in only one other black hole system.
Named IGR J17091-3624 after the astronomical coordinates of its sky position, the binary system combines a normal star with a black hole that may weigh less than three times the sun's mass. That is near the theoretical mass boundary where black holes become possible.
Gas from the normal star streams toward the black hole and forms a disk around it. Friction within the disk heats the gas to millions of degrees, which is hot enough to emit X-rays. Cyclical variations in the intensity of the X-rays observed reflect processes taking place within the gas disk. Scientists think that the most rapid changes occur near the black hole's event horizon, the point beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape.
Astronomers first became aware of the binary system during an outburst in 2003. Archival data from various space missions show it becomes active every few years. Its most recent outburst started in February and is ongoing. The system is located in the direction of the constellation Scorpius, but its distance is not well established. It could be as close as 16,000 light-years or more than 65,000 light-years away.
The record-holder for wide-ranging X-ray variability is another black hole binary system named GRS 1915+105. This system is unique in displaying more than a dozen highly structured patterns, typically lasting between seconds and hours.(read more)