Shifting Coronas Around Black Holes (Artist Concept)
A supermassive black hole is depicted in this artist's concept, surrounded by a swirling disk of material falling onto it. The purplish ball of light above the black hole, a feature called the corona, contains highly energetic particles that generate X-ray light. If you could view the corona with your eyes, it would appear nearly invisible since we can't see its X-ray light.
Figure 1 shows how a shifting corona can create a flare of X-rays around a black hole. The corona gathers inward (left), becoming brighter, before shooting away from the black hole (middle and right). Astronomers don't know why the coronas shift, but they have learned that this process leads to a brightening of X-ray light that can be observed by telescopes.
Normally, before a black hole's corona shifts, there is already an effect at work called relativistic boosting. As X-ray light from the corona reflects off the black hole's surrounding disk of material -- which is traveling near half the speed of light -- the X-ray light becomes brightened, as seen on the left side of the illustration. This boosting occurs on the side of the disk where the material is traveling toward us. The opposite effect, a dimming of the X-ray light, occurs on the other side of the disk moving away from us.
Another form of relativistic boosting happens when the corona shoots away from the black hole, and later collapses. Its X-ray light is also brightened as the corona travels toward us at very fast speeds, leading to X-ray flares.
In 2014, NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, and Swift space telescopes witnessed an X-flare from the supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy called Markarian 335. The observations allowed astronomers to link a shifting corona to an X-ray flare for the first time.
NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also in Pasadena, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles, Virginia. Its instrument was built by a consortium including Caltech; JPL; the University of California, Berkeley; Columbia University, New York; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland; the Danish Technical University in Denmark; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, California; ATK Aerospace Systems, Goleta, California, and with support from the Italian Space Agency (ASI) Science Data Center.
NuSTAR's mission operations center is at UC Berkeley, with the ASI providing its equatorial ground station located at Malindi, Kenya. The mission's outreach program is based at Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California. NASA's Explorer Program is managed by Goddard. JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA.