Black Hole Hurricane Produces 20 Million MPH Winds

Norman Byrd's picture

A study using NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory has recorded ultra-fast cosmic hurricane winds created by a black hole, the fastest winds on record for a stellar-mass object.

It is common lore that the safest place in a hurricane is the eye of said weather formation. But a cosmic hurricane discovered by scientists using NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory does not seem to operate under the same rules. In fact, University of Michigan astronomers noted that this black hole-induced maelstrom in no way acted like its Earthly counterparts. Not only do the cosmic winds thought to be produced by the magnetic fields in the accretion discs surrounding the black holes move in all directions at once but they are moving at roughly three percent of the speed of light.

The winds are whipping through space at 20 million miles per hour. That rate is ten times faster than has been previously recorded from a stellar-mass black hole.

Ashley King, the study's lead author, said in a statement, according to Space.com: "This is like the cosmic equivalent of winds from a Category 5 hurricane. We weren't expecting to see such powerful winds from a black hole like this."

The stellar winds were detected while studying a stellar-mass black hole known as IGR J17091-3624 (IGR J17091 for short), which is located about 28,000 light years from Earth toward the central galactic bulge of our own Milky Way galaxy. IGR J17091 is a binary system, one that incorporates a star orbiting a black hole.

Typical stellar-mass objects contains anywhere from five to ten times the mass of our Sun. They are formed when extremely massive stars collapse.

And yet, the stellar-mass black hole is nowhere near as large as supermassive black holes. This makes the discovery of such powerful wind forces somewhat of a surprise. Supermassive objects, which are thought to reside at the center of most galaxies, are millions, sometimes billions, of times larger than the average stellar-mass black hole.

Co-author of the study, Jon Miller, noted: "It's a surprise this small black hole is able to muster the wind speeds we typically only see in the giant black holes. In other words, this black hole is performing well above its weight class."

The Chandra X-Ray Observatory, which was launched from a NASA space shuttle in 1999, is able to detect heat generated in the millions of degrees (radiation known as x-rays), temperatures which occur around magnetic fields, areas of extreme gravitation, and as a result of explosive forces. The black hole winds appear to be generated from a disc of gas that surrounds the object, acted upon by shifting magnetic forces.

Chandra made headlines earlier in the month when a group of scientists at University of Leicester in the United Kingdom announced that the Milky Way's own supermassive black hole was devouring huge asteroids, detectable by energy flashes when the fast-moving planetoids disintegrated under the immense gravitational pressures of the black hole.

It was through evidence detected by Chandra that black holes were found to be far more common than had been originally known to exist. According to NASA, astronomers announced via Nature in June last year that a study of over 200 distant galaxies revealed that black holes were not only numerous, corroborating scientific predictions that had not been theretofore observed, but also found that the growth of the black holes appeared to be proportional to the growth of the galaxies they inhabited.

(photo credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)

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