An artist’s impression of the Cygnus X-1 system. This system contains the most massive stellar-mass black hole ever detected without the use of gravitational waves, weighing in at 21 times the mass of the Sun. Credit: International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research. Credit: International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research.
New observations of the first black hole ever detected have led astronomers to question what they know about the Universe’s most mysterious objects. Published in the journal Science, the research shows the system known as Cygnus X-1 contains the most massive stellar-mass black hole ever detected without the use of gravitational waves.
Cygnus X-1 is one of the closest black holes to Earth. It was discovered in 1964 when a pair of Geiger counters were carried on board a sub-orbital rocket launched from New Mexico. The object was the focus of a famous scientific wager between physicists Stephen Hawking and Kip Thorne, with Hawking betting in 1974 that it was not a black hole. Hawking conceded the bet in 1990. In this latest work, an international team of astronomers used the Very Long Baseline Array—a continent-sized radio telescope made up of 10 dishes spread across the United States—together with a clever technique to measure distances in space.
OzGrav Chief Investigator and study co-author Prof Ilya Mandel, from Monash University, says the black hole is so massive it’s actually challenging how astronomers thought they formed. ‘Stars lose mass to their surrounding environment through stellar winds that blow away from their surface. But to make a black hole this heavy, we need to dial down the amount of mass that bright stars lose during their lifetimes,’ says Prof Mandel. ‘The black hole in the Cygnus X-1 system began life as a star approximately 60 times the mass of the Sun and collapsed tens of thousands of years ago,’ he says. ‘Incredibly, it’s orbiting its companion star—a supergiant—every five and a half days at just one-fifth of the distance between the Earth and the Sun. These new observations tell us the black hole is more than 20 times the mass of our Sun—a 50 per cent increase on previous estimates.’
Second study author Dr Arash Bahramian from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) says this was an exciting discovery, resulting from a collaboration between astronomers focused on different observational and theoretical aspects of black holes, coming together for a new extensive and rigorous look at a known but previously elusive black hole. ‘It is exciting that we can measure so precisely so many aspects of the system, like its distance from us, its motion and speed through the Galaxy, and the binary motion of the black hole and the star around each other,’ says Dr Bahramian. ‘Our new distance estimate caused an interesting domino effect, leading us to new measurements for the mass and spin of the black hole, which in turn led to fascinating new insights about how stars evolve and how black holes form.’
Lead researcher James Miller-Jones also from ICRAR says over six days the researchers observed a full orbit of the black hole and used observations taken of the same system with the same telescope array in 2011. ‘This method and our new measurements show the system is further away than previously thought, with a black hole that’s significantly more massive,’ says Prof Miller-Jones.
In a separate but related development University of Birmingham PhD candidate Coenraad Neijssel, affiliated with OzGrav and Monash, led a companion paper to this work simultaneously published in the Astrophysical Journal. ‘Using the updated measurements of the system properties, we were able to unwind the previous history of the binary as well as predict its future,’ says Coenraad. ‘Precise observations like this are critical for improving our understanding of the evolution of massive stars.
This article is an edited of the original media release written by Silvia Dropulich at Monash University Media Office. Also featured in the New York Times and The Daily Mail.