NASA photographs huge rings of light surrounding a black hole

A spectacular photo of a huge array of rings surrounding a black hole was taken by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory.

The photo shows giant rings around a black hole, which itself is not visible because black holes contain no light and therefore cannot be imaged. But thanks to X-ray imaging, NASA says photos of the giant rings reveal information about dust in the Milky Way, using a principle similar to X-rays taken in doctors’ offices and airports.

This particular black hole is part of the binary system called V404 Cygni located about 7,800 light-years from Earth.

“The black hole is actively extracting material from a companion star – with about half the mass of the Sun – in a disk around the invisible object. This material shines in X-rays, so astronomers call these systems ‘x-ray binaries’,” says NASA.

The rings seen in the photo above represent X-rays bouncing off dust from this galaxy that scatters around the black hole in a halo. As one astronomer explained on Reddit, the best way to understand this is to compare it to the same way a halo might form around the sun due to ice crystals in the sky. The reason the halo is visible is that there is a somewhat uniform cloud of gas and dust between the black hole and the observatories used to capture the image.

The black hole is proportionally much smaller than the surrounding rings. As mentioned, the mass of this black hole is not particularly large at only about half the mass of Earth’s Sun.

The Chandra Observatory

NASA’s Chandra Observatory was launched on July 23, 1999, and served as the space agency’s flagship for X-ray astronomy. It is a telescope designed specifically to detect X-ray emissions from very hot regions of the universe, such as exploded stars, galaxy clusters, and matter surrounding black holes (like the photo above), NASA explains.

Chandra Observatory
Chandra Observatory | Credit: NASA/CXC & J.Vaughan

“Chandra carries four highly sensitive mirrors nested inside each other. Energetic X-rays strike the interior of the hollow shells and are focused on electronic detectors at the end of the 9.2 meter (30 foot) optical bench. Depending on the detector used, very detailed images or spectra of the cosmic source can be made and analyzed,” NASA explains.

Chandra is in an elliptical orbit more than a third of the Moon’s distance around the Earth. Its current location can be calculated using NASA’s Satellite Tracking Tutorial.


Picture credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/U.Wisc-Madison/S. Heinz et al.; Optical/IR: Pan-STARR

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