Binary Star System V404 Cygni Flares to Life

Forming rings of X-ray light that expand with time, creating a shooting target effect 

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Rings of X-ray light centered on V404 Cygni, a binary system containing an erupting black hole (dot at center), were imaged by the X-ray Telescope aboard NASA’s Swift satellite from June 30 to July 4. A narrow gap splits the middle ring in two. Color indicates the energy of the X-rays, with red representing the lowest (800 to 1,500 electron volts, eV), green for medium (1,500 to 2,500 eV), and the most energetic (2,500 to 5,000 eV) shown in blue. For comparison, visible light has energies ranging from about 2 to 3 eV. The dark lines running diagonally through the image are artifacts of the imaging system. Credits: Andrew Beardmore (Univ. of Leicester) and NASA/Swift

Space news (astrophysics: binary star systems; black hole/sun-like star systems) – 8,000 light-years away toward the constellation Cygnus, next to flaring 10 solar mass black hole – 

It all started just before 2:32 p.m. on June 15, 2015, when NASA’s Swift X-ray Burst Alert Satellite detected a rising wave of high-speed, extremely-energetic X-rays emanating from the direction of the constellation Cygnus. Additional detections of the same flare ten minutes later by a Japanese experiment on the International Space Station called the Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI) and other detectors. Allowed astronomers to determine the outburst detected originated 8,000 light-years away in low-mass X-ray binary V404 Cygni, where previous data indicated a stellar-mass black hole and sun-like star orbited each other. A black hole and sun-like star binary system that up to this point had been sleeping since its last outburst in 1989. 

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The Swift X-ray image of V404 Cygni covers a patch of the sky equal to about half the apparent diameter of the full moon. This image shows the rings as they appeared on June 30. Credits: NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio (left), Andrew Beardmore (Univ. of Leicester); NASA/Swift (right)

Fifteen days later on June 30, a team of scientists from around the world led by Andrew Beardmore of the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom investigated V404 Cygni a little closer using NASA’s Swift X-ray Burst Alert Satellite. Images taken (above) revealed a series of concentric rings of X-ray light centered on a 10 solar mass black hole (dot at the center of image). 

On the left, an optical image from the Digitized Sky Survey shows Cygnus X-1, outlined in a red box. Cygnus X-1 is located near large active regions of star formation in the Milky Way, as seen in this image that spans some 700 light years across. An artist's illustration on the right depicts what astronomers think is happening within the Cygnus X-1 system. Cygnus X-1 is a so-called stellar-mass black hole, a class of black holes that comes from the collapse of a massive star. The black hole pulls material from a massive, blue companion star toward it. This material forms a disk (shown in red and orange) that rotates around the black hole before falling into it or being redirected away from the black hole in the form of powerful jets.
On the left, an optical image from the Digitized Sky Survey shows Cygnus X-1, outlined in a red box. Cygnus X-1 is located near large active regions of star formation in the Milky Way, as seen in this image that spans some 700 light years across. An artist’s illustration on the right depicts what astronomers think is happening within the Cygnus X-1 system. Cygnus X-1 is a so-called stellar-mass black hole, a class of black holes that comes from the collapse of a massive star. The black hole pulls material from a massive, blue companion star toward it. This material forms a disk (shown in red and orange) that rotates around the black hole before falling into it or being redirected away from the black hole in the form of powerful jets.

Astronomers believe the x-ray rings are the result of echoing x-ray light from a large flare on June 26, 2016, at 1:40 p.m. EDT. The flare emitted x-rays in all directions. Multiple dust layers at around 4,000 and 1,000 light-years from V404 Cygni reflected some of these x-rays towards Earth. This reflected light travels a greater distance and reaches us slightly later than light traveling a straighter path. The small time difference produced an x-ray echo, formed x-ray rings expanding in spacetime.  

“The flexible planning of Swift observations has given us the best dust-scattered X-ray ring images ever seen,” Beardmore said. “With these observations, we can make a detailed study of the normally invisible interstellar dust in the direction of this black hole.” 

What’s next?

The team is currently watching V404 Cygni, waiting for its next outburst, and preparing Swift to collect additional data to determine exactly what’s going on here. They hope to hit the bulls eye in human understanding of the collection on x-ray sources detected across the cosmos. Regular monitoring of this binary system using a suite of telescopes and instruments could give us clues to how a stellar-mass black hole and sun-like star end up orbiting each other. About the origin and formation of the unusual types of binary systems detected during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. 

Watch this YouTube video on the flaring of V404 Cygni.

You can follow the space journey of NASA here

Learn more about the space voyage of the Swift X-ray Burst Alert Telescope

Discover V404 Cygni

Read about and discover the International Space Station here

Read more about the Japanese experiment Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI)

Travel across the Tarantula nebula on a runaway star.

Read about the Kepler Space Telescope’s recent observation of the shockwave from a nearby supernova for the first time in human history.

Take a look and learn more about NASA’s Europa spacecraft.

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