NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory discovers star orbiting a black hole

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory discovers star orbiting a black hole

As NASA put it, "This may be the tightest orbital dance ever witnessed for a likely black hole and a companion star". The star orbits the black hole once every 28 minutes at about 2.5 times the distance between Earth and the moon.

"Luckily for this star, we don't think it will follow this path into oblivion, but instead will stay in orbit", Bahramian said.

Astronomers have known about the stellar couple for many years, but researchers always thought they were a pair of stars.

Astronomically speaking, at a million kilometres, that's very, very close.

Researchers relied on two of NASA's space-based telescopes - the Chandra X-ray Observatory as well as NASA's NuSTAR telescope - and the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) on the ground to make the discovery.

This seemingly unique binary system - with a great name, X9 - is located in the globular cluster 47 Tucanae, a dense cluster of stars in our galaxy about 14,800 light years from Earth.

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Discovered long ago, it was only in the past couple of years that astronomers realised the white dwarf - nearly out of nuclear fuel - was getting ripped apart by a nearby black hole.

"Eventually so much matter may be pulled away from the white dwarf that it ends up only having the mass of a planet", said Heinke, also of the University of Alberta.

White dwarfs are the corpses of sun-like stars that have run out of fuel.

Hence, the star black hole pair X9 - in the globular star cluster 47 Tucanae - is now the closest known such pair.

So will the star collapse into the black hole?

The latest study has shown that the X9 white dwarf is whipping around its companion about every 28 minutes, a speed that means the objects are about 600,000 miles from each other, roughly 2.5 times the distance between Earth and the moon.

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What, then, becomes of the white dwarf?

Recently, astronomers have found a particularly interesting binary. The most plausible theory is that the black hole collided with a red giant star, a highly conceivable scenario since the binary exists in a globular cluster, where stars are close enough to each other that they interact gravitationally and have opportunities to crash into each other.

"If the likely black holes in both systems have similar masses, this would imply an orbit three times larger in physical size than the one we found in X9". The binary's orbit would have shrunk with the emission of gravitational waves and eventually the black hole would have started pulling material from the white dwarf.

In such pairings, neutron stars rotate faster and faster as they pull material from their companions, sometimes spinning on their axes thousands of times per second.

"We're going to watch this binary closely in the future, since we know little about how such an extreme system should behave", Vlad Tudor of Curtin University and the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Australia said.

The light emitted by transitional millisecond pulsars is extremely variable in X-ray and radio wavelengths - characteristics not seen in the X9 system, study team members said.

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The research paper detailing the cosmic dance between the two space objects is titled "The ultracompact nature of the black hole candidate X-ray binary 47 Tuc X9", and has been featured in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society published by Oxford University Press on 14 March 2017.

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