Snapshot: Dusty light veers from a black hole’s throat

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By | Published: September 10, 2021 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Blue rings of x-ray light surround a black hole. The rings are echoes of light scattered by dust clouds.
X-ray: NASA/CXC/U.Wisc-Madison/S. Heinz et al.; Optical/IR: Pan-STARRS

A black hole recently gobbled up material from its companion star in the binary system V404 Cygni, located 7,800 light-years from Earth. As the black hole’s meal swirled around it in 2015, the matter heated up and the system emitted a powerful burst of X-ray light. And like the sound waves of a yodeler echoing through the Austrian Alps, the light waves from the black hole’s burst are now echoing through the cosmos.

This composite image, which is centered on V404 Cygni, spans some 80 light-years and reveals these so-called light echoes. Each concentric ring is the result of X-rays from the initial burst being scattered by a different cloud of cosmic dust, redirecting the light toward us. The larger the ring, the closer the responsible dust cloud is to Earth. X-ray data (blue) for this composite image were obtained by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and Neils Gehrels Swift Observatory, while the background star field was imaged by the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii.