Persistent hiccups in a far-off galaxy draw astronomers to new black hole behavior | Science & Technology

At the heart of a far-off galaxy, a supermassive black hole appears to have had a case of the hiccups.

Astronomers from MIT, Italy, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere have found that a previously quiet black hole, which sits at the center of a galaxy about 800 million light years away, has suddenly erupted, giving off plumes of gas every 8.5 days before settling back to its normal, quiet state.

The periodic hiccups are a new behavior that has not been observed in black holes until now. The scientists believe the most likely explanation for the outbursts stems from a second, smaller black hole that is zinging around the central, supermassive black hole and slinging material out from the larger black hole’s disk of gas every 8.5 days.

The team’s findings, which will be published in the journal Science Advances, challenge the conventional picture of black hole accretion disks, which scientists had assumed are relatively uniform disks of gas that rotate around a central black hole. The new results suggest that accretion disks may be more varied in their contents, possibly containing other black holes, and even entire stars.

“We thought we knew a lot about black holes, but this is telling us there are a lot more things they can do,” says study author Dheeraj “DJ” Pasham, a research scientist in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “We think there will be many more systems like this, and we just need to take more data to find them.”

The study’s MIT co-authors include postdoc Peter Kosec, graduate student Megan Masterson, Associate Professor Erin Kara, Principal Research Scientist Ronald Remillard, and former research scientist Michael Fausnaugh, along with collaborators from multiple institutions, including the Tor Vergata University of Rome, the Astronomical Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, and Masaryk University in the Czech Republic.

“Use it or lose it”

The team’s findings grew out of an automated detection by ASAS-SN (the All Sky…

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