Like clockwork, a galaxy roughly 570 million lightyears away bursts light every 114 days, and scientists finally understand why.

Black Hole Outflows From Centaurus
(Photo : ESO/WFI (Optical); MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al. (Submillimetre); NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al. (X-ray) / Wikimedia Commons)
This image of Centaurus A shows a spectacular new view of a supermassive black hole's power. Jets and lobes powered by the central black hole in this nearby galaxy are shown by submillimeter data (colored orange) from the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope in Chile and X-ray data (colored blue) from the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Visible light data from the Wide Field Imager on the Max-Planck/ESO 2.2 m telescope, also located in Chile, shows the dust lane in the galaxy and background stars. The X-ray jet in the upper left extends for about 13,000 light years away from the black hole. The APEX data shows that material in the jet is travelling at about half the speed of light

The 'Old Faithful' Galaxy

With the data collected from various facilities, including NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, astronomers have studied 20 repeated outbursts called ASASSN-14ko.

Using various wavelength-sensitive telescopes, scientists were able to obtain detailed pictures of the outbursts.

The repeated flaring was first detected by the All Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASAS=SN) at Haleakala Observatory, Maui, in 2014. 

ESO253-3, known as "Old Faithful," is an active galaxy over 570 million light-years away in the southern constellation Pictor. During this time, astronomers first thought the outbursts were a supernova--a one-time star destroying event.

The periodic flares were detected in 2020 by NASA Graduate Fellow Anna Payne. The ESO253-3 emitted bright bursts every 114 days. Each outburst reaches its peak after 5 days before it steadily dims. 

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"This is the first clear example of recurring multiwavelength flares from a galaxy's core that happen this frequently," says Payne. "We think a supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center creates the bursts as it partially consumes an orbiting giant star."

Massive black holes emitting regular flares as it devours an orbiting star isn't as uncommon as one would think. Last year a nine-hour flaring schedule was observed.

The study, presented on January 12 at the 237th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, was led by Payne and is currently undergoing peer-review.

It is unclear how long the start and the black hole have maintained this relationship. But astronomers predict when the next flares would occur --in April and August of 2021--and plan to make more observations.

The outbursts present a rare opportunity to understand supermassive black hole mass accretion.

"In general, we want to understand the properties of these black holes and how they grow," says Kris Stanek from the Ohio State University.

Astronomers classify galaxies with bright and variable centers as active galaxies. These galaxies can produce more energy than the combined forces of all their stars, including higher ultraviolet, X-ray, and visible light levels.

Astrophysicists speculate that extra emission is derived from the swirling disk of gas and particles from a neighboring galaxy. The black hole slowly consumes the gas and adust, which create fluctuations in the disks resulting in bursts of light.

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