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Supermassive black holes behave like smaller ones in their destructive power, MIT research suggests

As a supermassive black hole consumed a star, researchers were surprised it exhibited properties that were similar to that of much smaller, stellar-mass black holes.
As a supermassive black hole consumed a star, researchers were surprised it exhibited properties that were similar to that of much smaller, stellar-mass black holes.Christine Daniloff, MIT

Supermassive black holes take in gas in the same way as their smaller counterparts, leading researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to believe black holes all behave similarly.

The new findings, published in the Astrophysical Journal Monday, suggest that all black holes consume mass in the same way, no matter their size, according to study author Dheeraj Pasham, a research scientist in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

“The main point that we’re trying to make through this paper is that supermassive black holes . . . [are] behaving very similar to a [stellar-mass] black hole when a ball of gas is thrown at it,” Pasham said in a telephone interview. “What we’re demonstrating is, if you look at the properties of a supermassive black hole in the cycle, those properties are very much like a stellar-mass black hole.”

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The findings mean “black holes are simple, and elegant in a sense,” Pasham said.

“They all appear to be acting in the same way,” he said.

The findings came about when the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae detected signals of a sudden flare — which scientists later determined was the result of a “tidal disruption event” with a supermassive black hole, according to a statement from MIT. This prompted Pasham and his team to home in on the star system where the event was occurring.

“Initially, it didn’t do much in the sense that ray emission was kind of very low, very dim, there was barely a detection for a couple of months, and then in the first paper we just said, there’s nothing,” Pasham said. “Then after six months when we went back and looked at it, that’s when the X-ray emission which is coming from right next to the black hole that seemed to be a highly variable factor of hundreds. So that’s when we knew something weird was happening.”

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When Pasham first saw the data showing the highly variable X-ray emission he assumed “something was wrong with the detector.”

“Anytime I see something weird I’m like, ‘Oh ok is the detector correct? Did I review the data correctly?’ ” he said.

With the new understanding of black hole behavior in mind, researchers will be able to study black holes in far greater detail than they had before, Pasham said.

“Before, people had to study an ensemble of black holes to get an understanding of how jets are launched, how the black holes emit huge amounts of radiation into their host galaxies, and here you have an opportunity to actually track single supermassive black holes through the entire cycle,” he said. “You can understand which of these supermassive black holes actually emit jets that regulate the formation of stars in their host galaxies.

“It is just a new means to understand so many of the open questions,” he said.

Charlie McKenna can be reached at charlie.mckenna@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @charliemckenna9.