Number 303 (Story #2), January 16, 1997 by Phillip F. Schewe and Ben Stein|
A BLACK HOLE'S EVENT HORIZON HAS BEEN DETECTED. Ramesh Naryan and his colleagues at the Harvard- Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have used the orbiting ASCA x-ray telescope to study x-ray novas, binary systems in which gas from one star is pulled toward an accretion disk and the spherical region surrounding a compact companion. These systems occasionally flash prominently at x-ray wavelengths (hence the name x-ray nova), but Naryan is more interested in what happens during the quiescent intervals between upheavals. His recent theory, called the advection-dominated accretion flow (ADAF) model, suggests that if the accretion rate is slow enough the inspiraling gas will refrain from radiating away its accumulating energy. Instead the gas continues to get ever hotter, reaching temperatures as high as 10^12 K. Eventually this enormous energy buildup is dealt with in one of two ways: if the compact object is a neutron star, the gas will fall onto its surface, where it heats the star, causing it to radiate. In contrast, if the object is a black hole, there is no surface for the gas to fall upon; instead, like a prisoner being led to execution, the gas crosses the black hole's event horizon, never to be seen again. In effect, 99% of the gas energy disappears from the universe. Because of this, x-ray binaries containing a black hole should be dimmer than those with neutron stars. Naryan, speaking at this week's meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Toronto, reported on 9 binaries which fit the ADAF pattern of behavior. Four of these were thought to harbor black holes (because of their higher masses), and indeed these are all dimmer than the five neutron-star binaries. Naryan judges this dimness, and the binaries' x-ray spectra, to be the sign that an event horizon is at work, and that this in turn constitutes the most direct evidence yet for the existence of black holes.