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Black hole and ‘heartbeat’ gas cloud
The black hole (background) and the gas cloud (foreground), which are 100 light years apartCourtesy DESY, Science Communication Lab

Explained: a cloud with a ‘heartbeat’ has been found in deep space

An expert from the study explains their rare find – a cosmic gas cloud ‘beating’ along with the rhythm of a neighbouring black hole

If 2020 hadn’t already given us enough – a global pandemic, murder hornets, the return of the bubonic plague – scientists have made an unusual discovery in space: a gas cloud that appears to be ‘beating’ to the rhythm of a neighbouring black hole.

The cosmic gas cloud – created when dust and gas gather in space – was found to have a ‘heartbeat’ after researchers looked through 10 years of data from a NASA space telescope. Scientists are not sure exactly how the cloud and the black hole are connected, as they lie 100 light years away from one another.

“A cloud beating in gamma rays with the same precession period of a central black hole is very uncommon,” research leader, Dr Jian Li, tells Dazed. “It’s the first time we’ve detected it.”

When they found the ‘heartbeat’, researchers were observing a system known as SS 433, which is 15,000 light years away from us (very, very far). This system includes the aforementioned black hole, and a giant star that’s approximately 30 times the mass of our sun.

Every 13 days, the black hole and the star orbit around one another. As they do this, the black hole sucks material from the giant star. “This material accumulates in accretion disc before falling into the black hole, like water in the whirl above the drain of a bath tub,” Li said in a press release.

Though some of the material falls into the hole, some shoots in two jets into space. Instead of shooting out in straight lines, the jets sway in space – the rhythm of this swaying is also seen in the cloud, indicating that the cloud is powered by the black hole.

“This heartbeat is unexpected from previous theories,” Li tells Dazed. “We don’t know how it’s powered, but we have a theory to explain it. We think the protons from the outflow of the black hole are interacting with the cloud and leading to gamma-ray emission and the ‘heartbeat’.”

“A cloud beating with the same precession period of a central black hole is very uncommon. It’s the first time we’ve detected it,” Dr Jian Li, research leader

What exactly does this mean? Basically, protons are produced at the ends of the jets near the black hole, which are then injected into the cloud, where they produce gamma rays. It’s believed that whenever the protons strike the cloud, it lights up in gamma rays – AKA the ‘heartbeat’.

Li explains that in order for the ‘heartbeat’ to continue, there may be a magnetic tube connecting the cloud and the black hole. “We have observations in other wavelengths – for example, radio – happening to study this heartbeat, trying to understand its nature.”

Luckily for us, Li confirms that there’s nothing to worry about, though. “There’s no danger to our world,” he concludes. “All of this is happening 15,000 light years away.”