Black hole mystery: ‘Mind-boggling’ black hole’s disappearing act prompts huge discovery

Black holes continue to remain one of the most baffling entities in the Universe, and no matter how much progress astronomers make, there still seems to be something else to discover. Now, experts have discovered a black hole which exploded in light over a relatively small period, leaving scientists with “mind boggling” headaches.

A new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) observed a black hole’s corona – the ring of super-bright energy which encircles a black hole – disappear before rapidly bursting back into light with extreme luminosity.

The corona of the black hole, which is 300 million lightyears away from Earth, vanished over the course of a year, which is nothing in astronomical terms, before building up again over the course of just months.

MIT physicist Erin Kara said: “We expect that luminosity changes this big should vary on timescales of many thousands to millions of years.

“But in this object, we saw it change by 10,000 over a year, and it even changed by a factor of 100 in eight hours, which is just totally unheard of and really mind-boggling.”

While what happened to the black hole’s corona is still largely a matter of guesswork, the scientists behind the study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, believe a runaway star may have been caught up in the ring of light, causing everything to essentially jam up.

A statement from MIT said: “Like a pebble tossed into a gearbox, the star may have ricocheted through the black hole’s disk of swirling material, causing everything in the vicinity, including the corona’s high-energy particles, to suddenly plummet into the black hole.”

Following the disappearing act, researchers said the corona would have been able to build up again, with the intense friction in the swirling gas once again able to produce the bright lights.

Ms Kara said: “This seems to be the first time we’ve ever seen a corona first of all disappear, but then also rebuild itself, and we’re watching this in real-time.

“This will be really important to understanding how a black hole’s corona is heated and powered in the first place.”

Claudio Ricci, an assistant professor at Diego Portales University in Santiago, Chile, and lead author of the study, said: “We just don’t normally see variations like this in accreting black holes.

“It was so strange that at first we thought maybe there was something wrong with the data. When we saw it was real, it was very exciting.

“But we also had no idea what we were dealing with; no one we talked to had seen anything like this.”

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Much more observational work will need to be done before scientists will truly be able to understand the mechanisms and nuances of such a phenomenon.

Ms Kara continued: “This dataset has a lot of puzzles in it. But that’s exciting, because it means we’re learning something new about the universe.

“We think the star hypothesis is a good one, but I also think we’re going to be analysing this event for a long time.”

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