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A Black Hole’s Accretion Disk Has Just Been Simulated in a Lab

First image of the Supermassive black hole in the Milky Way. Credit: ESO

In a groundbreaking achievement that pushes the boundaries of scientific exploration, researchers have successfully simulated the elusive and awe-inspiring phenomenon of a black hole's accretion disk within the confines of a laboratory.

Researchers at Imperial College have successfully simulated a glowing ring around black holes known as the accretion disk, typically formed by plasma and other matter falling into a black hole. This revolutionary experiment presents an accurate model of the dynamics of these plasma discs, known as accretion discs.

The Puzzle of Accretion Discs and Black Holes

Accretion discs pose a significant question: how can black holes grow if the orbiting matter doesn’t fall into them? According to the primary theory, the instability of magnetic fields within the plasma creates friction, causing energy loss and the gradual descent of the plasma into the black hole​.

Challenging Existing Testing Methods

Previously, liquid metals spun in controlled environments were the primary means of testing this theory. However, this method fails to represent the free-flowing nature of plasma due to the containment of metals within pipes​.

The MAGPIE Experiment, Accretion Disks and Black Holes

Imperial researchers utilized the Mega Ampere Generator for Plasma Implosion Experiments (MAGPIE) to spin plasma in a manner closely mirroring real-world accretion discs. This revolutionary experiment involved the collision of eight accelerated plasma jets, forming a rotating column. Interestingly, the closer to the center of the spinning ring, the faster it moved, mimicking actual accretion discs in the universe​

Accretion Disk Simulated

Dr. Vicente Valenzuela-Villaseca, the study’s leading author, expressed that understanding accretion discs‘ behavior could reveal insights into black hole growth and star formation. The findings could even guide the creation of stars in controlled environments by understanding plasma stability in fusion experiments​

MAGPIE’s Limitations and Future Potential

The MAGPIE experiment has its constraints, primarily producing short plasma pulses resulting in a single disc rotation. However, the proof-of-concept experiment indicates that longer pulses could lead to more rotations, offering a more detailed characterization of the disc’s properties. Extending the experiment run time would also enable researchers to apply magnetic fields to examine their impact on the system’s friction​

Looking Forward

According to Dr. Valenzuela-Villaseca, we are just beginning to observe accretion discs in innovative ways, including lab experiments and snapshots of black holes with the Event Horizon Telescope. These methods will help test theories and check if they align with astronomical observations.​ The study is published in the Physical Review Letters journal, providing an in-depth look into the research’s methodology and findings.

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