“Scientists have mapped the environment surrounding a black hole that is 10 times the mass of the Sun using NASA’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) payload aboard the International Space Station. NICER detected X-ray light from a recently discovered black hole, called MAXI J1820+070 (J1820 for short), as it consumed material from a companion star. Waves of X-rays formed “light echoes” that reflected off the swirling gas near the black hole and revealed changes in the environment’s size and shape.
A black hole can siphon gas from a nearby star and into a ring of material called an accretion disk that glows in X-rays. Above this disk is the corona, a region of subatomic particles that glows in higher-energy X-rays.
Astrophysicists want to better understand how the inner edge of the accretion disk and the corona change in size and shape as a black hole accretes material from its companion star. If they can understand how and why these changes occur in stellar-mass black holes over a period of weeks, they could shed light on how supermassive black holes evolve over millions of years and how they affect the galaxies in which they reside.