Heartbeat of Supermassive Black Hole Detected For First Time in Years

The supermassive black hole's heartbeat signal had been obscured by the Sun since 2011.
Chris Young

Did you know that some supermassive black holes have a heartbeat? The matter that seeps into the space giants as they feed on the accretion disc — diffuse matter orbiting the event horizon — releases huge amounts of celestial energy from a relatively small portion of space.

On rare occasions, the power released is so huge that it can be observed here on Earth as periodic bursts, resembling heartbeats.


Now, it has been revealed that the first-ever confirmed heartbeat of a supermassive black hole has been observed again for the first time since 2011 when the observation was blocked out by the Sun — surprising scientists with its longevity.

We missed a few beats

The heartbeat of the supermassive black hole was first detected in 2007 at the center of a galaxy called RE J1034+396, approximately 600 million light-years from Earth.

The signal from the space giant repeated every hour and the behavior was being observed by several satellites before solar radiation blocked observation in 2011.

Still going strong

In 2018, more than ten years after it was first observed, the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton X-ray satellite was able to finally re-observe the black hole. To the scientists' amazement, the same heartbeat signal was still going strong.

Heartbeat of Supermassive Black Hole Detected For First Time in Years
An artist's concept of a supermassive black hole and its surrounding accretion disk, Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Astronomers now say this is the most long-lived heartbeat ever seen in a black hole. The research was published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society by the National Astronomical Observatories Chinese Academy of Sciences of China, and Durham University of the UK. 

It details the way in which these new observations tell us more about the size and structure of things close to the black hole's event horizon — the space around a black hole from which not even light can escape.

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An opportunity for further research

Though we don't exactly know why these "heartbeats" occur, the main theory is that the inner parts of the black hole's accretion disc are expanding and contracting.

"This heartbeat is amazing! It proves that such signals arising from a supermassive black hole can be very strong and persistent," Lead author Dr. Chichuan Jin of the National Astronomical Observatories, Chinese Academy of Sciences said in a press release.

"It also provides a great opportunity for scientists to further investigate the nature and origin of this heartbeat signal."

The next step for the researchers is to perform an extensive analysis of this intriguing signal from the space, and compare it with other black holes observed in the night sky.

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