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Black hole, star detected orbiting at record speed


Kevan Karanjia, Staff Writer
March 24, 2013 — The European Space Agency has discovered the fastest orbiting star ever recorded.


A graphic of the components that make up the XMM-Newton space telescope
A graphic of the components that make up the XMM-Newton space telescope

The European Space Agency's XMM-Newton space telescope has discovered a star and black hole orbiting each other at record speeds. 

The celestial objects were detected orbiting each other at a rate of once every 2.4 hours, breaking the previous record. 

MAXI J1659-152 as the black hole is known, is up to three times the mass of the Sun. 

The red dwarf star that orbits with it is much smaller, with a mass only 20% of our Sun. 

Initially the two objects were detected in 2010, but scientists thought it was simply a burst of gamma rays. 

Another telescope on the International Space Station later discovered X-rays coming from the same spot, which turned out to be a black hole feeding off material from a neighbour. 

“The companion star revolves around the common centre of mass at a dizzying rate, almost 20 times faster than Earth orbits the Sun" says Dr. Erik Kuulkers of ESA’s European Space Astronomy Centre in Spain, in a release. "You really wouldn’t like to be on such a merry-go-round in this Galactic fair!”

An Accretion disk is formed by material in orbital motion around a central body, like a black hole (Courtesy NASA)
An Accretion disk is formed by material in orbital motion around a central body, like a black hole (Courtesy NASA)

Scientists can measure the speed of orbit by timing "blips" in the X-rays caused by the orbit of the black hole’s accretion disc. 

They followed the orbital period over a span of 14.5 hours when the record was detected. 

The previous mark belongs to Swift J1753.5–0127, which has an orbital period of 3.2 hours. 

The black hole and star orbit their common centre of mass but because the star is lighter, its centre is further away. 

Being further away from its centre of mass allows for it to move at record speeds, recorded at a massive two million kilometres per hour. 

In comparison, the black hole moves at a more modest 150,000 km/h. 

"These high galactic latitude locations and short orbital periods are signatures of a potential new class of binary system, objects that may have been kicked out of the Galactic plane during the explosive formation of the black hole itself,” says Dr. Kuulkers.

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