Smaller black hole disrupts larger black hole and causes 'cosmic hiccups' •

In a galaxy far, far away, something strange has caught the eye of astronomers – a mysterious black hole like a cosmic hiccup. Every 8.5 days, this celestial giant emits a burst of gas before returning to its usual quiet wake.

The discovery was presented by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (with), turns our understanding of black holes on its head. It reveals a universe even more strange and dynamic than we ever imagined.

David and Goliath are black holes

Astronomers at MIT and around the world have discovered that this supermassive black hole isn't the quiet, predictable kind. This is a new and intriguing behavior not seen before in black holes.

Scientists believe that there is often an explanation in the cosmic game of David and Goliath. A smaller black hole, Cosmic David, orbits Goliath – a supermassive black hole located at the heart of the galaxy. This interaction ejects cosmic matter, causing the observed „hiccups.”

A possible explanation for cosmic hiccups

A smaller black hole orbits a larger black hole. As it moves, it passes through the supermassive black hole's accretion disk, a vast, swirling jet of gas and dust that feeds into the supermassive black hole.

Each time a small black hole passes through an accretion disk, it disturbs the disk's material. Imagine a spoon stirring in coffee, creating swirls and waves. Similarly, the small black hole's gravity pulls in the disk's gas and dust, dragging some material with it.

This disturbance leads to the outflow of gas from the accretion disk. Material ejected by the gravitational influence of the smaller black hole is thrown into space, creating a plume or explosion of gas. It's like a splash of water when you quickly drag your hand through a still pool.

Ejections of this material occur periodically, which correlates with the orbit of the smaller black hole around the larger black hole. Each time the tiny black hole completes an orbit and passes through the accretion disk, another „hiccup” occurs, causing a new explosion of gas.

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From our point of view, these bursts of gas appear as fluctuations in the light from the galaxy — brightening as the gas is ejected, then returning to its normal state. It is these fluctuations that scientists call cosmic hiccups.

Significance of cosmic hiccups

This remarkable discovery challenges our standard view of black hole accretion disks. We envisioned these discs as highly uniform gas clouds. Hiccup suggests that the black hole story may be more confusing. Accretion discs may be entangled with stars, remnants, and other black holes.

„We thought we knew a lot about black holes, but this tells us there's a lot more we can do,” said Dheeraj „TJ” Basam, co-author of the study. „We think there will be many more systems like this, and we need to take more data to find them.”

How do we detect cosmic hiccups?

This cosmic oddity was first brought to light by ASAS-SN, a network of automated telescopes that scan the sky for unusual events. In December 2020, these cosmic eyes spotted a galaxy that suddenly grew a thousand times brighter.

Intrigued, the scientists returned NASAof the X-ray telescope, NICER, for a closer look. NICER's observations revealed a mysterious dip in energy — a sign of a collapsing black hole.

Cosmic hiccups triggered by a star

How did this dynamic duo come to be? Scientists think it all started with an unhappy star wandering too close. The intense gravity ripped the star apart (scientists call this a „tidal disruption event”).

Particles from the star were absorbed by the supermassive black hole, triggering a temporary feeding frenzy. The explosion allowed scientists to see the tiny black hole forming a disruptive orbit around its giant companion.

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Understanding black holes

„It's a different beast,” Pasam said. „It doesn't fit with anything we know about these systems. We see evidence of objects moving into and through the disk at different angles, challenging the traditional picture of a simple disk of gas around black holes. We think there's a large population of these systems out there.”

Overall, this cosmic hiccup paints a very dynamic and confusing picture of the lives of black holes. It serves as a compelling reminder of the complexity of the universe. Even amidst vast, silent space, countless hidden dramas emerge. These celestial events are patiently lingering, ready to overturn our established beliefs and change our grip on the universe.

Another interesting phenomenon beyond cosmic hiccups

Besides cosmic hiccups, several phenomena associated with black holes fascinate scientists and the public alike:


The event horizon is the boundary around a black hole beyond which nothing can escape, not even light. Objects approaching a black hole are stretched into long, thin spaghetti-like shapes due to extreme gravitational differences along their length. This process is strangely called „spaghettification”.

Aggregation disks

These are hot, glowing discs of gas and dust that spiral into black holes. The black hole's intense gravity pulls on matter, which heats up and emits X-rays and other radiation, often observed by space telescopes.

Gravitational lensing

Black holes bend light around them, acting like a natural lens. This phenomenon, predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity, can magnify and distort the light of stars and galaxies behind the black hole, allowing astronomers to observe more distant or faint objects.

Hawking radiation

Proposed by Stephen Hawking, this theoretical process states that black holes emit radiation due to quantum effects near the event horizon. On incredibly long time scales, this radiation can cause black holes to evaporate and disappear.

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Binary black hole mergers

When two black holes orbit close together, they eventually spin up and merge, releasing vast amounts of energy in the form of gravitational waves. LIGO and other observatories have detected these ripples in spacetime, opening up a new way to observe the universe.

Quasars and Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN)

Some of the supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies are incredibly active, pulling in vast amounts of material. This process can create quasars and AGNs, some of the brightest and most energetic objects in the universe, visible over cosmic distances.

Black hole jets

Some black holes eject massive jets of particles at the speed of light. These jets can extend for thousands of light-years and are thought to be driven by the magnetic fields of the black hole's spin and accretion disk.

Black hole shadows

The Event Horizon Telescope captured the first image of a black hole's „shadow” in 2019, providing direct visual evidence of the existence of a supermassive black hole. The shadow is caused by the bending of light by the immense gravity of the black hole.

Each of these events provides a unique window into the nature of black holes and the extreme conditions that exist in their vicinity, providing insights into the laws of physics under conditions unattainable on Earth.

The study is published in the journal Scientific advances.


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