An artist’s impression of V404 Cygni rotating off-axis from the disk of material that surrounds it.
Illustration: ICRAR

Scientists around the world were able to create a short visualization of an active black hole wobbling like a top, according to a new paper—an important observation for the field.

Black holes might seem like cosmic vacuum cleaners, but as they suck up matter from their environment, they can spew high-energy jets of material. This groundbreaking new observation has shown that, in cases where the disk of matter from a star and a nearby black hole’s spin are misaligned, the black hole can fling jets around, making it appear to wobble like an enormous top over the span of just a few hours. Scientists hope that understanding this chaotic situation will help them better understand other weird events in the Universe.

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“That could include a whole bunch of other bright, explosive events in the Universe, such as supermassive black holes feeding very quickly or tidal disruption events, when a black hole shreds a star,” Gemma Anderson, research fellow at Curtin University in Australia, said in a press release.

V404 Cygni is a system 8,000 light-years away, consisting of a black hole sucking up matter from a star. On June 22, 2015, scientists working on 10 radio telescopes around the world measured an outburst of jets from the system over the course of four hours, probably caused by the black hole eating matter very quickly—a cosmic feast. Normally, scientists would accumulate all of that data to try and make a single image for the observational period, but the black hole emission was changing too quickly. Instead, the researchers produced 103 images, each representing 70 seconds of observation. They then combined those images with some data processing and modeling to create their visualization.

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The jets appeared to swing around by 30 degrees (one-twelfth of a pie) in the sky during that period, leaving behind clouds of plasma, according to the paper published in Nature.

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“We’re getting this jet precession much more [rapidly] than we ever thought before,” study author Gregory Sivakoff, an associate professor in physics at the University of Alberta, told Gizmodo.

The researchers made a short movie from the data, showing the clouds of plasma moving away from the black hole.

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What could be causing this? Well, black holes have incredibly strong gravitational fields, and gravity is just a warping of space and time. Spinning black holes will drag space and time along with them as they spin. The star and the disk of matter are slightly misaligned from the black hole’s spin direction, so it produces the wobble. The astronomers then observe the result—the spinning jets.

Others were excited about the result. “This is quite a breakthrough in the field,” Jose Gómez, research scientist at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (CSIC) in Spain who reviewed the paper, told Gizmodo. He and Sivakoff both noted that the analysis was complex, given how the researchers had to break the data up into many smaller segments.

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It’s cool for a lot of reasons. Scientists hope to understand how these swinging jets behave around other black holes, like those at the centers of galaxies, since they might influence star formation, said Sivakoff. And you might remember that earlier this month, scientists from the Event Horizon Telescope debuted the first-ever image of the shadow that black holes cast on the light behind them. Both the EHT team and this group used Very Long Baseline Interferometry in order to essentially turn the Earth itself into a telescope—and both groups now hope to make movies of black holes evolving over time.

With more observations and better telescopes, we really might get to see a video of black holes gobbling up matter some day.

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