Glamorgan Student Throws New Light on Black Hole

Astronomers based at the Faulkes Telescope Project and University of Glamorgan have joined forces with a first year undergraduate to investigate the odd behaviour of a black hole.

Ex-US Marine Chris O’Morain, a mature student on the new Observational Astronomy degree at Glamorgan, is co-author of a recent Astronomers’ Telegram about a black hole system called GX339-4. These “ATels” are the electronic early-warning system that researchers use to spread information rapidly about exciting new results around the global astronomy community.

“As a first year student at Glamorgan, I’ve had an amazing amount of access to state-of-the-art facilities, and I’ve been regularly using the 2-metre Faulkes Telescopes in Hawaii and Australia to study a variety of unusual stars that I’m interested in” said Chris. “These observations of the black hole system were just something I did for fun really, to help out the research team that was studying the object – it’s great that the images I took helped them understand this weird system a little better”.

Postgraduate student Fraser Lewis, a member of the Faulkes Telescope Project based at Glamorgan, is working in collaboration with groups in Amsterdam and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US to study this particular object. The team are able to use the Faulkes Telescope South, located at Siding Spring in Australia, to combine education and research by involving users in their science programmes.

This particular set of observations was designed to examine the variability of the black hole, and in particular the rapid flickering in brightness coming from the disc of matter in orbit around it. The black hole system, known as GX 339-4, was discovered in 1973 and is located several thousand light years away, towards the centre of our Galaxy. It is thought to weigh around 6 times as much as our Sun and is able to drag material onto itself from a nearby star. This material orbits the black hole in a disc and gradually heats up to over 1 million degrees, causing it to emit light at X-ray and visible wavelengths.

In conjunction with Faulkes Telescope users based in New York, Portugal and Kent, the researchers analysed images taken on May 19th and 20th which showed that GX 339-4 was as faint as it has been for several years, but mysteriously it was still flickering dramatically in brightness.

“The course that Chris is studying is specifically designed to give students a lot of access to actual telescopes and data”, said course leader Dr Paul Roche, “so it’s great to see that even in the 1st year we can successfully involve students in real research projects. Chris has been a very keen user of the Faulkes Telescopes, and his inclusion on the research announcement is great for him, and for the degree – we now just need to figure out what these results are telling us!”

Astronomy students at the University of Glamorgan have regular access to these facilities as part of their studies.