For the first time, astronomers have seen dim flickers of visible light from near a black hole. You can see it happen in the video below; however, anyone with a moderate-size (20-cm) telescope should be able to see it from their backyard.

The bursts of light were recorded over a 3.5 hour period, as gas and dust were violently torn apart in the area surrounding the black hole, called V404 Cygni, one of the closest black holes to earth. At that time, it was one of the brightest sources of X-rays seen in the universe. By studying the flickering light, astronomers will be able to better understand the complex ways in which matter can swirl into black holes.

Nothing Can Escape
Artist’s impression of a black hole feasting on matter from its companion star in a binary system. Credit: ESA / ATG medialab.

Light coming from a black hole might sound contradictory.

However, as black holes rip apart nearby stars and pieces fall, or accrete, into the hole, that friction causes tons of heat (think 10 million degrees Celsius kind of heat), resulting in a bright glow.

In this particular case, the gravitational pull exerted on V404 Cygni’s partner star was so strong that, as matter fell into the black hole, a burst of radiation was released.

The specific part of the structure glowing is the accretion disk.  It’s formed by all of the material in orbital motion around a central body. Scientists don’t know a ton about how accretion works, though. That’s because, as the team behind the work notes, matter behaves in very complex ways as it enters a black hole.

Worldwide Coordination

The scientists leading the study said they hope worldwide coordination will permit future research to better understand the nature of these extreme events. In fact, they’re already beginning to better understand the ways in which black holes become unstable and fluctuate wildly. 

“Thanks to international cooperation, we could get extensive optical observational data in our research with 35 telescopes at 26 locations,” Kimura said. “We would like more people to join in optical observations of black-hole binaries.


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