The accretion flow around a black hole

Black holes are infamous for their relentless gravitational pull through which they drain matter and energy from their surroundings. However, with their enormous power, these tantalizing objects also blast matter back into space via ultra-fast collimated jets and dense winds. Understanding the exact connection between how black holes accrete from – and supply feedback to – their environment is one of the outstanding challenges of modern astrophysics.

X-ray binaries are excellent laboratories to study the eating habits of black holes. In these binary star systems a black hole orbits a Sun-like star close enough to pull off and accrete the outer layers of its unfortunate companion. This accretion process liberates enormous amounts of energy that is emitted across the electromagnetic spectrum. Studying the accretion flow in X-ray binaries thus warrants a multi-wavelength approach.

We recently performed such a study for the newly discovered X-ray binary Swift J1910.2-0546.  In 2012 May the Swift satellite suddenly discovered a new, bright X-ray point source in the sky and very soon it became clear that the X-ray emission was powered by accretion onto a black hole. Using the X-ray and UV telescopes onboard Swift, we continued to monitor this new X-ray binary for about three months. To complement these observations, the source was also closely followed at optical and infrared wavelengths (B, V, R, I, J, H, and K filters) using the 1.3-m SMARTS telescope located at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile. Finally, a high-resolution X-ray spectroscopic observation was obtained with the Chandra satellite.

This monitoring campaign allowed us to map out the accretion morphology around the black hole in Swift J1910.2-0546. Firstly, X-ray spectroscopy revealed two peculiarities: although disk winds appear to be ubiquitous in black hole X-ray binaries when they are at their brightest, our Chandra observations did not reveal any emission or absorption features that are the imprints of an accretion disk wind. Since such winds are thought to be concentrated in the equatorial plane, this may imply that we are viewing the binary at relatively low inclination. Moreover, even during the brightest stages of its outburst tracked by Swift, the temperature of the accretion disk did not reach above 0.5 keV (about 6 million degrees Kelvin), whereas most black hole disks are much hotter with temperatures above 1 keV. This could plausibly be a geometrical effect, again suggesting that the inclination angle of the binary is relatively low.

Comparing the overall light curves of the outburst in different wavebands revealed two other striking features. A sharp and prominent flux dip appeared in the X-rays almost one week later than at UV, optical and infrared wavelengths. The detailed properties of this flux dip appear to point to a global change in accretion flow geometry, possibly related to the formation of a collimated jet or the condensation of the inner part of the accretion disk. In addition, when the activity of the black hole started to cease, we found that the X-rays steadily decreased whereas the UV emission suddenly was rising again. The observed strong anti-correlation between the X-ray/UV flux also indicates a global change in accretion flow.

Paper link: ADS

Artist impression of the accretion flow around a black hole.  Credit: NASA/Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital

Artist impression of the accretion flow around a black hole.
Credit: NASA/Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital