After rediscovering the first confirmed heartbeat of a distant supermassive black hole, scientists confirmed that it is still going strong even after over a decade when it was first discovered. According to the scientists, the heartbeat is coming from the black hole's accretion disk.

The observation was made by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Durham University. Their findings were presented in a new study published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Artist's Impression of the Gaseous Disk around the Supermassive Black Hole
Hot spots circling around the black hole could produce the quasi-periodic millimeter emission detected with ALMA. Keio University

Observing a Supermassive Black Hole's Heartbeat

The study focused on a supermassive black hole located at the center of a galaxy identified as RE J1034+396, which is about 600 million light-years from Earth's neighborhood. In 2007, the scientists detected a repeating signal coming from the black hole. According to their observations, which were made using X-ray satellites, the signal repeated itself every hour. Due to its frequency, the scientists referred to the signal as the black hole's heartbeat.

Unfortunately, in 2011, the satellites used by the scientists to observe the signal was blocked by the Sun, preventing them from monitoring the heartbeat for many years. In 2018, the scientists were able to once again observe the repeating signal using the XMM-Newton X-ray satellite of the European Space Agency. They were surprised to learn that even after more than a decade, the supermassive black hole's heartbeat is still active.

Black hole
This artist's concept illustrates a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun. Supermassive black holes are enormously dense objects buried at the hearts of galaxies. (Smaller black holes also exist throughout galaxies.) In this illustration, the supermassive black hole at the center is surrounded by matter flowing onto the black hole in what is termed an accretion disk. This disk forms as the dust and gas in the galaxy falls onto the hole, attracted by its gravity. NASA/JPL-Caltech

How The Black Hole Produces a Repeating Signal

According to the scientists, the repeating signal might be coming from the black hole's accretion disk, which is a swirling disk of cosmic materials that fall into the black hole. The scientists believe that the signal is produced as the black hole feeds on the material from the accretion disk. Currently, the only black hole that is known to produce its own repeating signal is a stellar-mass black hole within the Milky Way galaxy.

"The main idea for how this heartbeat is formed is that the inner parts of the accretion disc are expanding and contracting," Chris Done, the co-author of the study, said in a statement. "The only other system we know which seems to do the same thing is a 100,000 times smaller stellar-mass black hole in our Milky Way, fed by a binary companion star, with correspondingly smaller luminosities and timescales. This shows us that simple scalings with black hole mass work even for the rarest types of behavior."