Black hole mystery mimicked by supercomputer
NASA/JPL NEWS RELEASE
Posted: January 27, 2002
"This research helps us unlock the mysteries of rotating black holes and confirms that their rotation actually produces power output," said Dr. David Meier, an astrophysicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. Meier is co-author of a paper that will appear in the journal Science. The leader of the research team is Dr. Shinji Koide of Toyama University, Toyama, Japan.
A black hole is an object so dense and powerful that nothing, not even light, can escape. A black hole gobbles up stars and other material that approaches it, including other black holes. These odd objects form in one of two ways -- when a dying star collapses, or when many stars and black holes collapse together in the center of a galaxy, like our Milky Way.
Both types of black holes can rotate very rapidly, dragging along the space around them. When more material falls in, it swirls and struggles wildly before being swallowed. Astronomers have witnessed this violence, including the ejection of jets, with radio and X-ray observations, but they are not able to see a black hole itself.
"We can't travel to a black hole, and we can't make one in the lab, so we used supercomputers," Meier said. This simulation process is similar to weather-prediction techniques, which create animation of how clouds are expected to move, based on current satellite views and knowledge about Earth's atmosphere and gravity effects. In much the same way, the scientists combined data about plasma swirling into a black hole with knowledge about how gravity and magnetic fields would affect it.
"We have modeled a rotating black hole with magnetized plasma falling into it," said Koide. "We simulated the way that the magnetic field harnesses energy from the rotation of the black hole."
"In this case, jets of pure electromagnetic energy are ejected by the magnetic field along the north and south poles above the black hole," Meier added. "The jets contain energy equivalent to the power of the Sun, multiplied ten billion times and then increased another one billion times."
Scientists have theorized the existence of black holes since the 1700s and identified jet-producing objects in the centers of galaxies since the early 1900s. In the 1960s, scientists explored the possibility that these jet-emitting objects were supermassive black holes between one million and several billion times heavier than our Sun. In the 1990s, it was discovered that such jets also are ejected by much smaller black holes in double star systems. A black hole ten times as massive as the Sun can form when the center of a dying star, 20 to 30 times the mass of the Sun, collapses on itself. This creates a tiny object, only a few miles across, with an intense gravitational pull. The other supermassive type of black hole is formed when many stars and black holes collapse together in the center of a galaxy.
In addition to Koide and Meier, the team includes colleagues Dr. Kazunari Shibata, Kyoto University, Kyoto, and Dr. Takahiro Kudoh, National Astronomical Observatory, Mitaka.
The research was partially funded by an Astrophysics Theory Grant from NASA. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.