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NC telescope confirms flaring black hole


Researchers have utilised the MeerKAT Telescope to confirm the existence of a never-before-seen flaring black hole.

RESEARCHERS from the South African Astronomical Observatory have utilised the MeerKAT Telescope, situated in the Northern Cape, to confirm the existence of a never-before-seen flaring black hole.

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) XMM-Newton X-Ray space telescope recently discovered mysterious X-ray flashes from the active black hole at the core of the galaxy GSN 069, some 250 million light years away.

On December 24, 2018 the object was seen to suddenly increase its brightness by up to a hundred times, then dimmed back to its normal levels within one hour and lit up again nine hours later.

“It was completely unexpected,” Giovanni Miniutti, of the Centro de Astrobiologia in Madrid, Spain, lead author of a new paper published in the prestigious journal Nature, said.

“Giant black holes regularly flicker like a candle but the rapid, repeating changes seen in GSN 069 from December onwards are something completely new.”

“The X-ray emission comes from material that is being accreted into the black hole and heats up in the process,” Giovanni explained.

Although never before observed, Giovanni and colleagues think periodic flares like these might actually be quite common in the universe. It is possible that the phenomenon hadn’t been identified before because most black holes at the cores of distant galaxies, with masses millions to billions of times the mass of our sun, are much larger than the one in GSN 069, which weighs about 400 000 times our sun.

In order to study the radio properties of the source of these X-ray flashes, astronomers from the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) used the powerful new capabilities provided by their fellow National Research Foundation (NRF) facility, the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO).

SAAO astronomer’s Dr Retha Pretorius and Dr Itumeleng Monageng utilised SARAO’s MeerKAT radio telescope and were able to detect the black hole at lower frequencies (1.3GHz) to complement other radio observations from ATCA (5.5 and 9 GHz) and VLA
(6 GHz).

“Having access to such a powerful radio telescope has enabled us to compete internationally on major discoveries like this – MeerKAT is yet another world-class telescope available to South African astronomers” Dr Monageng said.

SARAO director Rob Adam added “It’s exciting to see MeerKAT being used in a groundbreaking multi-wavelength study by young South African researchers from our sister observatory.”