A NASA spacecraft currently orbiting a distant asteroid in our solar system has caught an unexpected yet stunning glimpse at a recently-discovered black hole located some 30,000 light-years away. While exploring the vicinity of asteroid Bennu, the instrument onboard the spacecraft spotted traces of a black hole in the Columba constellation.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission in orbit around asteroid Bennu, an space rock located millions of kilometers away from Earth, has made an unexpected detection of a cosmic phenomenon located 30,000 light-years away.
Last fall, a student-built X-ray imaging spectrometer (REXIS) onboard the spacecraft detected a new black hole in the Columba constellation while making observations of the cosmos as it was orbiting the space rock.
REXIS, an instrument the size of a shoebox, was designed to measure the X-rays that Bennu emits in response to incoming solar radiation.
X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation, like visible light, but with much more energy. REXIS is a collaborative experiment led by students and researchers from MIT and Harvard, who proposed, built and operate the instrument.
On November 11, 2019, while the REXIS instrument made detailed scientific observations of Bennu, it captured X-rays that radiated from a point outside the edge of the asteroid, something that caught the attention of researchers.
To their surprise, they found that the instrument onboard OSIRIS-Rex had actually spied a black hole located some 30,000 light-years away, in the Columba constellation.
The glowing object turned out to be an X-ray binary with a newly formed black hole, discovered only a week earlier by Japan’s MAXI telescope, designated MAXI J0637-430.
NASA’s NICER telescope also identified the X-ray explosion a few days later.
REXIS, on the other hand, detected the same activity millions of kilometers from Earth while orbiting Bennu, the first such explosion detected from interplanetary space.
Both MAXI and NICER operate onboard the NASA International Space Station and detected the X-ray event from the low Earth orbit.
“Detecting this X-ray burst is a proud moment for the REXIS team. It means our instrument is performing as expected and to the level required of NASA science instruments,” explained Madeline Lambert.
Lambert is an MIT graduate student who created the instrument’s command sequences that serendipitously exposed the black hole.
X-ray explosions, such as that emitted by the newly discovered black hole, can only be observed from space since the Earth’s atmosphere protects our planet from X-rays.
These X-ray emissions occur when a Black hole attracts matter from a normal star that is in orbit around it. As matter spirals on a rotating disk that surrounds the black hole, a huge amount of energy (mainly in the form of X-rays) is released in the process.
According to NASA, asteroid Bennu is a potentially hazardous object that is listed on the Sentry Risk Table with the second-highest cumulative rating on the Palermo Technical Impact Hazard Scale, having a cumulative 1-in-2,700 chance of impacting Earth between 2175 and 2199.