Ever wish you had x-ray vision? NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory does and used it to make this eerie, new view of the famous Whirlpool Galaxy in Hunting Dogs constellation. Gone are the familiar whirls of stars that shape its spiral arms, replaced by glittering points of x-ray light from matter swirling down black holes. The blobby purple stuff is gas that’s been super-heated by massive stars that have erupted as supernovae.
900,000 seconds of observing time went into creating the photo which sparkles with nearly 500 x-ray sources. Previous exposures revealed only about 100. Most are found within the Whirlpool’s disk but some are between us and the galaxy or behind it.
Most of the x-ray point are x-ray binaries (XRBs) or very close ‘double stars’ where one of the components is either a compact city-sized star called a neutron star or a black hole. When a massive star explodes as a supernova it can leave behind either it’s much compressed core – now a neutron star – or a black hole.
Matter from the companion star is pulled and accelerated by the intense gravitational field of the compact star and heated to millions of degrees, producing a luminous X-ray source. Picture water going down your bathtub drain so quickly it heats up to a million degrees to produce beams of x-rays.
The Chandra observations reveal that at least ten of the XRBs in the galaxy are bright enough to contain black holes. In eight of these systems the black holes are likely capturing material from companion stars that are much more massive than the Sun.
Astronomers have been using Chandra to observe black hole XRBs in the Whirlpool for some ten years. During that time, the sources have remained consistently bright. Giant stars release a steady stream of material in stellar winds, while their black hole companions are only too happy to gobble up the gas and steal it away from the universe forever.
The Whirlpool’s in the process of merging with its companion galaxy NGC 5195 (upper left in photos). While no individual stars are ‘harmed’ in these mergers, gas clouds collide and trigger waves of fresh star formation. Some of these stars are supergiants that zip through their lifetimes in a few million years (compared to several billions for stars like our sun) and explode as supernova, leaving remnant compact stars behind, including XRBs.
Those paired up with other suns will detonate as supernovae to create a new x-ray binaries. Most of the XRBs containing black holes in M51 are located close to regions where stars are forming, showing their connection to the oncoming galactic collision. Our own galaxy has its own assortment of XRBs which help astronomers trace out its spiral arms, where most of the new stars are forming in the galaxy.