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Small black hole disrupts a bigger one, causing 'cosmic hiccups'

In a galaxy far, far away, something peculiar has caught the eye of astronomers – a supermassive black hole with what seems like a case of cosmic hiccups. Every 8.5 days, this celestial giant emits a plume of gas before returning to its usual silent vigil.

This discovery, presented by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), turns our understanding of black holes on its head. It reveals a universe even stranger and more dynamic than we ever imagined.

David and Goliath blackholes

Astronomers from MIT and around the globe have discovered that this supermassive black hole isn’t the quiet, predictable type. It’s a new and puzzling behavior never observed in black holes before.

Scientists believe the most likely explanation lies in a cosmic game of David and Goliath. A smaller black hole, the cosmic David, orbits the Goliath – a supermassive black hole situated at the galaxy’s heart. This interaction throws cosmic material out, causing the observed “hiccups.”

Possible explanation of cosmic hiccups

The smaller black hole orbits the supermassive black hole. As it moves, it traverses the larger black hole’s accretion disk, which is a vast, swirling plane of gas and dust that feeds into the larger black hole.

Each time the smaller black hole passes through the accretion disk, it disturbs the disk’s material. Imagine a spoon stirring through coffee, creating whirls and ripples. Similarly, the smaller black hole’s gravity pulls on the disk’s gas and dust, dragging some of this material along with it.

This disruption leads to the ejection of gas from the accretion disk. The material slung out by the smaller black hole’s gravitational influence is thrown into space, creating a plume or burst of gas. This is akin to splashing water as you quickly pull your hand through a calm pond.

These ejections of material happen periodically, correlating with the smaller black hole’s orbit around the supermassive black hole. Every time the smaller black hole completes an orbit and passes through the accretion disk, another “hiccup” occurs, causing a new burst of gas.

From our vantage point, these periodic bursts of gas appear as fluctuations in the light coming from the galaxy – brightening when the gas is ejected and then dimming back to its normal state. These fluctuations are what scientists have termed cosmic hiccups.

Significance of cosmic hiccups

This remarkable discovery challenges our standard view of black hole accretion disks. We used to envision these disks as fairly uniform clouds of gas. The hiccuping black hole tells us the story might be much more chaotic. Accretion disks could be riddled with stars, remnants, and even other black holes.

“We thought we knew a lot about black holes, but this is telling us there are a lot more things they can do,” said study co-author Dheeraj “DJ” Pasham. “We think there will be many more systems like this, and we just need to take more data to find them.”

How did we spot cosmic hiccups?

This cosmic oddity first came to light thanks to ASAS-SN, a network of automated telescopes scanning the skies for unusual events. In December of 2020, these cosmic eyes spotted a galaxy that had suddenly grown a thousand times brighter.

Intrigued, scientists turned to NASA‘s X-ray telescope, NICER, to take a closer look. NICER’s observations revealed the mysterious dips in energy – the telltale sign of the smaller black hole punching through.

Cosmic hiccups triggered by a star

How did this dynamic duo come into being? Scientists think it all started with a hapless star wandering too close. Intense gravity ripped the star to shreds (scientists call this a “tidal disruption event”).

Shards of the star were gobbled up by the supermassive black hole, fueling a temporary feeding frenzy. This flare-up allowed scientists to witness the smaller black hole making its disruptive orbit around its giant companion.

Understanding the black holes

“This is a different beast,” said Pasham. “It doesn’t fit anything that we know about these systems. We’re seeing evidence of objects going in and through the disk, at different angles, which challenges the traditional picture of a simple gaseous disk around black holes. We think there is a huge population of these systems out there.”

Overall, this cosmic hiccup has painted a far more dynamic and chaotic picture of the lives of black holes. This serves as a compelling reminder of the universe’s complexity. Even amidst the vast, tranquil expanse of space, countless hidden dramas unfold. These celestial events patiently linger, poised to overturn our established beliefs and alter our grasp of the cosmos.

Other interesting phenomenon beyond cosmic hiccups

Apart from cosmic hiccups, several other phenomena associated with black holes captivate 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 get stretched into long, thin shapes like spaghetti due to the extreme gravitational differences across their length. This process is whimsically termed “spaghettification.”

Accretion disks

These are hot, glowing disks of gas and dust that spiral into black holes. The intense gravity of the black hole pulls in material, which heats up and emits X-rays and other radiation, often observable with space telescopes.

Gravitational lensing

Black holes can 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 from stars and galaxies behind the black hole, allowing astronomers to observe objects otherwise too distant or faint.

Hawking radiation

Proposed by Stephen Hawking, this theoretical process suggests that black holes can emit radiation due to quantum effects near the event horizon. Over incredibly long timescales, this radiation could lead to the evaporation and disappearance of black holes.

Binary black hole mergers

When two black holes orbit each other closely, they can eventually spiral in 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 supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies are incredibly active, pulling in vast amounts of material. This process can create quasars and AGN, some of the brightest and most energetic objects in the universe, visible across cosmic distances.

Black hole jets

Some black holes eject massive jets of particles at nearly the speed of light. These jets can extend for thousands of light-years and are thought to be powered by the black hole’s spin and the magnetic fields of the 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 a supermassive black hole’s existence. The shadow is caused by the bending of light by the black hole’s immense gravity.

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

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.


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