SOUTHAMPTON astronomers have observed violent red flashes, lasting just fractions of a second, during one of the brightest black hole outbursts in recent years.
In June 2015, a black hole called V404 Cygni underwent dramatic brightening for about two weeks, as it devoured material that it had stripped off an orbiting companion star.
V404 Cygni, which is about 7,800 light years from Earth, was the first definitive black hole to be identified in our galaxy and can appear extremely bright when it is actively devouring material.
In a new study, published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, an international team of astronomers, led by the University of Southampton, report that the black hole emitted dazzling red flashes lasting just fractions of a second, as it blasted out material that it could not swallow.
The astronomers associated the red colour with fast-moving jets of matter which were ejected from close to the black hole.
Dr Poshak Gandhi, associate professor at the University of Southampton, said: "Piecing together clues about the colour, speed, and the power of these flashes, we conclude that this light is being emitted from the base of the black hole jet. The origin of these jets is still unknown, although strong magnetic fields are suspected to play a role.”
He added: "The duration of these flashing episodes could be related to the switching on and off of the jet, seen for the first time in detail."
Each flash was blindingly intense, equivalent to the power output of about 1,000 suns, and some of the flashes were shorter than 1/40th of a second – about 10 times faster than the duration of a typical blink of an eye.
The astronomers used the Ultracam fast imaging camera mounted on the William Herschel Telescope in La Palma, on the Canary Islands, to capture the flashes.
This research was a collaboration between the Universities of Southampton, Sheffield and Warwick, together with international partners in Europe, USA, India and the UAE.