For the first time, NASA astronomers using Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) captured the innermost part of the black hole's (GX 339-A) active jets.
The rare data collected by the engineers show fluctuations in the infrared light from the flares. These jets help learn about the extreme environments around the black holes. The black hole, called GX 339-4, had been observed previously. It lies more than 20,000 light-years away from the Earth near the center of our galaxy. It has a mass at least six times greater than the Sun.
Imagine what it would be like if our Sun were to undergo sudden, random bursts, becoming three times brighter in a matter of hours and then fading back again. That's the kind of fury we observed in this jet, said Poshak Gandhi, a scientist with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
With WISE's infrared vision, we were able to zoom in on the inner regions near the base of the stellar-mass black hole's jet for the first time and observe the physics of jets in action, said Gandhi, who is the lead author of a s new study on the results appearing in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Like other black holes, Gx 339-A is an ultra-dense collection of matter, with gravity that is so great even light cannot escape. In this case, the black hole is orbited by a companion star that feeds it. Most of the material from the companion star is pulled into the black hole, but some of it is blasted away as a jet flowing at nearly the speed of light.
To see bright flaring activity from a black hole, you need to be looking at the right place at the right time, said Peter Eisenhardt, the project scientist for WISE at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
The new data also allowed astronomers to make the best measurements yet of the black hole's magnetic field, which is 30,000 times more powerful than the one generated by the Earth at its surface.