Monster black hole awakens after 26 years, and now it’s hungry

26 Jun 2015

Illustration of V404 Cygni via ESA/ATG medialab

It appears that there has been a sleeping giant in distant space that has decided to awaken from its cosmic slumber after 26 years and it has gotten European Space Agency (ESA) astronomers rather excited.

Having been monitored for more than a week, a patch of dark space designated V404 Cygni is situated almost 8000 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus (the swan) and is a system comprising of a black hole and a star orbiting one another.

The first sign of its cosmic comeback was spotted on 15 June by the Burst Alert Telescope on NASA’s Swift satellite, which detected a sudden burst of gamma rays that subsequently triggered observations with its X-ray telescope.

With news of its awakening, astronomers here on Earth rushed to catch a glimpse of the awakening giant in the hope of capturing some important astronomical data.

Before and after images of the black hole's awakening

Integral image before and after the outburst. Image via ESA/Integral/IBIS/ISDC.

Speaking of the significance of this discovery, Erik Kuulkers, Integral project scientist at the ESA, said: “The behaviour of this source is extraordinary at the moment, with repeated bright flashes of light on time scales shorter than an hour, something rarely seen in other black hole systems.”

He continued: “In these moments, it becomes the brightest object in the X-ray sky – up to 50 times brighter than the Crab Nebula, normally one of the brightest sources in the high-energy sky.”

For many of the researchers working on the reappearance, it’s something of a blast from the past, as they would have worked in the early stages of their careers on the original discovery of V404 Cygni back in 1989 with the Japanese X-ray satellite Ginga and high-energy instruments on board the Mir space station.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic