XRISM observatory detects iron around actively active black hole science news


The XRISM (X-ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission) instrument led by JAXA and NASA studied the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy NGC 4151. By analyzing X-ray spectra, XRISM detected fingerprints of iron around the black hole, providing insight into the elements present and the fate of matter as it approaches the black hole.

XRISM has detected the signature of iron in a nearby active black hole. (Image credit: Spectrum: JAXA/NASA/XRISM Resolve. Background: X-ray, NASA/CXC/CfA/J.Wang et al.; Optical, Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes, La Palma/Jacobus Kapitan Telescope; Radio, NSF /NRAO/VLA).

New Delhi: In September 2023, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the X-ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (XRISM) in collaboration with NASA. The co-passenger on the launch vehicle was the Moon Sniper SLIM mission. Subsequently, the XRISM instrument shared its first-light observations in January 2024, with JAXA announcing that the instrument had been operationalized, and began science operations in March. Now, the first results of science are coming.

The XRISM instrument (pronounced 'krism') has focused its sensitive gaze on NGC 4151, a spiral galaxy located 43 million light-years away in the northern constellation of Canes Venatici. NGC 4151 is one of the oldest known galaxies that hosts an actively feeding supermassive black hole within its core. The central black hole has a mass greater than 20 million Suns.

Matter and gas falling into the central supermassive black hole undergoes extreme friction, causing it to glow at frequencies across the electromagnetic spectrum. The galaxy is unusually bright and variable, with the brightness of the accretion disk changing due to a combination of gravitational and frictional forces. Some matter at the edge of the event horizon is ejected in twin jets of particles, accelerated to relativistic speeds.

A labeled diagram showing the major components of an active galaxy.

Components of an active galaxy, and where XRISM observed iron. (Image credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab).

a glowing black hole

Astronomers turned XRISM to NGC 4151 because the galaxy is unusually bright in X-rays Astronomers detected signatures of iron in the accretion disk around the black hole. XRISM can also detect sulfur, calcium, argon, and other elements, depending on the source.

“XRISM's RESOLVE instrument captured a wide spectrum of the region around the black hole,” says Brian Williams, XRISM project scientist at NASA. The peaks and dips are like chemical fingerprints that can tell us what elements are present and reveal clues about the fate of matter near the black hole. Iron's signature was picked up by the RESOLVE instrument on the XRISM board.


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