Astronomers recreate super speedy rings surrounding black holes in lab

"Understanding how accretion discs behave will not only help us reveal how black holes grow, but also how gas clouds collapse to form stars."
Mrigakshi Dixit
The turbulent disk of gas churning around a black hole.
The turbulent disk of gas churning around a black hole.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman 

Black holes are hard to decipher because nothing, not even light, can escape their powerful pull. 

To have a better understanding of the enigmatic black holes, researchers have tried to recreate the immediate environment of a black hole in the lab setting. 

The Imperial College London team created a spinning disc of plasma, which mimics the one surrounding a black hole, known as the accretion disc.

"Understanding how accretion discs behave will not only help us reveal how black holes grow, but also how gas clouds collapse to form stars, and even how we might be able to better create our own stars by understanding the stability of plasmas in fusion experiments," said Vicente Valenzuela Villaseca, lead of this study, and post-doctoral researcher at Princeton University, in an official statement.

Recreating the plasma disc

An accretion disc is made up of superheated gas that swirls at incredible speeds around the event horizon of a black hole — a boundary that marks the outer edge of the black hole from which not even light can escape.

The iconic photograph of M87* shows an accretion disk with a blurred halo of the orange glow surrounding a supermassive black hole.

The team used the Mega Ampere Generator for Plasma Implosion Experiments machine (MAGPIE) to simulate the disc spin of a black hole

The MAGPIE machine created rings by accelerating eight plasma jets and then colliding them, resulting in the formation of a spinning column — similar to what happens around a black hole. The plasma ring closer to the spinning column's center rotated much faster than the one closer to its edge, as known in the actual accretion discs.

The authors hope that this experiment will shed light on one of the most perplexing aspects of accretion disks: how does a black hole grow if material remains in a stable orbit around the event horizon rather than falling into it?

As per the official release, one leading hypothesis is based on the “instabilities in magnetic fields in the plasma cause friction, causing it to lose energy and fall into the black hole.” 

Future experiments using this facility may ultimately be able to better decode this mystery. 

Dr. Valenzuela-Villaseca concluded: “We are just as the start of being able to look at these accretion discs in whole new ways, which include our experiments and snapshots of black holes with the Event Horizon Telescope. These will allow us to test our theories and see if they match astronomical observations.”

The study details have been published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Study abstract:

We present results from pulsed-power driven differentially rotating plasma experiments designed to simulate physics relevant to astrophysical disks and jets. In these experiments, angular momentum is injected by the ram pressure of the ablation flows from a wire array Z pinch. In contrast to previous liquid metal and plasma experiments, rotation is not driven by boundary forces. Axial pressure gradients launch a rotating plasma jet upward, which is confined by a combination of ram, thermal, and magnetic pressure of a surrounding plasma halo. The jet has subsonic rotation, with a maximum rotation velocity 23±3  km/s. The rotational velocity profile is quasi-Keplerian with a positive Rayleigh discriminant κ2∝r−2.8±0.8  rad2/s2. The plasma completes 0.5–2 full rotations in the experimental time frame (∼150  ns).

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