Talk about being in the right place at the right time.
A NASA telescope called NuSTAR for short, which is scanning around approximately 324 million light-years from Earth, happened to be in perfect position to see a black hole's powerful gravity tugging on X-ray light emitted from a nearby corona, the space agency said in an Aug. 12 news release.
A corona is a compact source of X-rays, NASA said.
"The result was an extreme blurring and stretching of the X-ray light," the release said. "Such events have been observed previously, but never to this degree and in such detail."
Unlike what its name suggests, a black hole is not empty space. On the contrary, it's a great amount of matter packed into a small area.
In the case of this black hole, which is called Markarian 335 or Mrk 335, think of a star about 10 million times more massive than our sun into a region only 30 times the sun's diameter, according to NASA.
As it turns out, NASA's Swift satellite, which was launched in 2004, has been monitoring Markarian 335 for years and recently noticed a change in its X-ray brightness. So, the quick-thinking scientists in charge of NuSTAR redirected it to take a look at the high-energy X-rays near the black hole.
The X-rays were in the right energy range (three to 79 kiloelectron volts) to give astronomers a detailed look at what was happening in the region of interest -- the area around the black hole from which light can no longer escape gravity.
"Almost as if somebody had shone a flashlight for the astronomers, the shifting corona lit up the precise region they wanted to study," the release said.
Researchers don't know if the corona will shift back, NASA said.
"We still don't understand exactly how the corona is produced or why it changes its shape, but we see it lighting up material around the black hole, enabling us to study the regions so close in that effects described by Einstein's theory of general relativity become prominent," NuSTAR principal investigator Fiona Harrison of the California Institute of Technology said.
NuSTAR, which stands for Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, is led by Caltech and managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, both in Pasadena, Calif.
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