Black holes are terrifying and awesome — which pretty much sums up everything about space itself. They do all kinds of crazy things, like spinning around at half the speed of light and launching stars. They also have the capability of bending light, space, and time to their will, which makes them something like the bad-ass mega-villains of the galaxy. Now their antics have been captured by NASA’s NuSTAR telescope.
NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) is to black holes what Rosetta is to comets — a telescope designed specifically to find and harvest data about these cosmic phenomena. NuSTAR’s been in space for just over two years, having completed its primary mission and moving on to an extended mission that involves continued exploration of black holes and pulsars and what they call a “general observer program,” which will allow astronomers not affiliated with NuSTAR to make suggestions for its use, and potentially use it themselves.
Recently, NuSTAR witnessed and recorded some rare activity around a supermassive black hole it’s been monitoring. The area around the black hole, known as the corona, consists of x-rays that generally shine brightly enough to be the most visible part of the hole. NuSTAR has captured the collapsing of the corona toward the hole, which means the gravity of the hole is pulling in light, causing it to “spiral inward.” The increasing force of the gravity has pulled the x-rays to the extent that NuSTAR captured the “blurring and stretching” of the x-rays to a degree never previously seen before.
The supermassive black hole is called Markarian 335 and is over 300 million light-years from Earth. Mrk 335 swallows a mass 10 million times greater than that of the sun, pulling it into an area roughly 30 times the sun’s diameter. It spins so fast that “space and time are dragged around with it,” according to NASA. The luminosity of Mrk 335’s x-rays has changed over the years, and it’s unclear whether the corona will shift back to its previous position. The handy thing is that the black hole is conveniently increasing the brightness of the corona, which makes studying it easier. Ultimately, scientists hope to learn more about black hole coronas, as well as black holes themselves. Right now, they don’t know how the corona is formed or why its shape changes, but because it illuminates the area around a black hole, it “enabl[es] us to study the regions so close in that effects described by Einstein’s theory of general relativity become prominent,” according to NuSTAR principal investigator Fiona Harrison. It always comes back to Einstein.