Black Hole’s Guts Modeled in Supercomputer Simulation

The inner workings of the densest objects in the universe are a bit clearer now — thanks to the power of supercomputer simulation.

By analyzing a model of a black hole about the size of a star, researchers found that matter falling into black holes can emit two different kinds of X-rays.

“Our work traces the complex motions, particle interactions and turbulent magnetic fields in billion-degree gas on the threshold of a black hole, one of the most extreme physical environments in the universe,” lead researcher Jeremy Schnittman, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said in a statement.

Stellar-mass black holes are created when massive stars run out of fuel, collapsing into extremely dense objects with strong gravitational pulls.

Gas orbiting a black hole eventually builds up into a flattened disk as it falls toward the black hole’s center. The gas can reach temperatures of up to 20 million degrees Fahrenheit (12 million degrees Celsius) — about 2,000 times hotter than the sun’s surface — as it nears the center. The hot gas shines in low-energy light known as “soft” X-rays.

“Black holes are truly exotic, with extraordinarily high temperatures, incredibly rapid motions and gravity exhibiting the full weirdness of general relativity,” Julian Krolik, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, said in a statement. “But our calculations show we can understand a lot about them using only standard physics principles.”

Scientists have also observed black holes producing light with energy tens to hundreds of times greater than soft X-rays. The origin of these “hard” X-rays was a mystery before the research team modeled the process.

Schnittman and his team found that magnetic fields increase the density, speed and temperature of the gas in the disk, creating a “turbulent froth orbiting the black hole at speeds approaching the speed of light,” NASA officials wrote in a statement.

The magnetic pressures on the disk create a corona above it that leads to the production of hard X-rays.

The scientists used 27 days of data from the Ranger supercomputer located at the University of Texas, Austin to produce these results. The findings were published in the June 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

Image courtesy of NASA

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