Letter | Published:

A rapidly changing jet orientation in the stellar-mass black-hole system V404 Cygni

Abstract

Powerful relativistic jets are one of the main ways in which accreting black holes provide kinetic feedback to their surroundings. Jets launched from or redirected by the accretion flow that powers them are expected to be affected by the dynamics of the flow, which for accreting stellar-mass black holes has shown evidence for precession1 due to frame-dragging effects that occur when the black-hole spin axis is misaligned with the orbital plane of its companion star2. Recently, theoretical simulations have suggested that the jets can exert an additional torque on the accretion flow3, although the interplay between the dynamics of the accretion flow and the launching of the jets is not yet understood. Here we report a rapidly changing jet orientation—on a time scale of minutes to hours—in the black-hole X-ray binary V404 Cygni, detected with very-long-baseline interferometry during the peak of its 2015 outburst. We show that this changing jet orientation can be modelled as the Lense–Thirring precession of a vertically extended slim disk that arises from the super-Eddington accretion rate4. Our findings suggest that the dynamics of the precessing inner accretion disk could play a role in either directly launching or redirecting the jets within the inner few hundred gravitational radii. Similar dynamics should be expected in any strongly accreting black hole whose spin is misaligned with the inflowing gas, both affecting the observational characteristics of the jets and distributing the black-hole feedback more uniformly over the surrounding environment5,6.

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Data availability

The raw VLBA data are publicly available from the NRAO archive (https://archive.nrao.edu/archive/advquery.jsp), under project codes BM421 and BS249. All software packages used in our analysis (AIPS, Difmap, CASA, UVMULTIFIT and EMCEE) are publicly available. The final calibrated images and uv-data are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request. The data underlying the figures are available as csv or xlsx files, and the measured positions and flux densities of all VLBA components from 22 June 2015 are included with the MCMC fitting code (see below).

Code availability

The MCMC fitting code is available at https://github.com/tetarenk/jet-jitter.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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Acknowledgements

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc. J.C.A.M.-J. is the recipient of an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (FT140101082) funded by the Australian Government. A.J.T. is supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Post-Graduate Doctoral Scholarship (PGSD2-490318-2016). A.J.T. and G.R.S. acknowledge support from NSERC Discovery Grants (RGPIN-402752-2011 and RGPIN-06569-2016). M.J.M. acknowledges support from a Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Ernest Rutherford Fellowship. D.A. acknowledges support from the Royal Society. G.E.A. is the recipient of an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (project number DE180100346) funded by the Australian Government. T.M.B. acknowledges a financial contribution from the agreement ASI-INAF n.2017-14-H.0. P.G.J. acknowledges funding from the European Research Council under ERC Consolidator Grant agreement 647208. S. Markoff and T.D.R. acknowledge support from a Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) Veni Fellowship and Vici Grant, respectively. K.P.M. acknowledges support from the Oxford Centre for Astrophysical Surveys, which is funded through the Hintze Family Charitable Foundation. K.P.M. is currently a Jansky Fellow of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. This work profited from discussions carried out during a meeting on multi-wavelength rapid variability organized at the International Space Science Institute (ISSI) Beijing by T.M.B. and D. Bhattacharya. The authors acknowledge the worldwide effort in observing this outburst, and the planning tools (created by T. Marsh and coordinated by C. Knigge) that enabled these observations.

Reviewer information

Nature thanks José L. Gómez and Christopher Reynolds for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author information

J.C.A.M.-J. wrote the manuscript with input from all authors. J.C.A.M.-J. wrote the observing proposal BM421 with help from all authors. G.R.S. wrote the observing proposal BS249 with help from J.C.A.M.-.J., A.J.T., R.P.F., P.G.J., G.E.A. and K.P.M. J.C.A.M.-J. designed and processed the VLBA observations. A.J.T. performed the Monte Carlo modelling. J.C.A.M.-J., A.J.T. and G.R.S. analysed the data. M.J.M. led the development of the Lense–Thirring precession scenario, with help from S. Markoff.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to James C. A. Miller-Jones.

Extended data figures and tables

  1. Extended Data Fig. 1 Position angles of the jet components on 22 June 2015.

    Angles are shown relative to the jitter-corrected centroid position, with 1σ uncertainties. Corresponding pairs of components (N2/S2, N3/S3 and N6/S6) are shown with matching colours and marker shapes. The mean position angles are shown as dashed (northern components) or solid (southern components) lines. Swings in position angle arise because of components blending as one gives way to another (for example, S2/S3). The dotted black line shows the orientation of the VLBA synthesized beam, which does not match the component position angles. Discrete jumps in beam orientation correspond to antennas entering or leaving the array. Source data

  2. Extended Data Fig. 2 Best-fitting proper motions of the different components on 22 June 2015.

    Corresponding pairs of components (N2/S2, N3/S3 and N6/S6) are shown with the same colour. The orientation shows the direction of motion, and the length denotes the magnitude (distance travelled in one day). 1σ uncertainties are indicated by dotted lines (which, given the small uncertainties, merge into the solid lines). The measured position angles range from −0.2° to −28.6° east of north (similar to the range of angles seen over the full outburst duration), providing a lower limit on the precession-cone half-opening angle of 14.2°, consistent with the 18° lower limit inferred from the 8.4-GHz data. Source data

  3. Extended Data Fig. 3 Motion of the observed components on 22 June 2015.

    a, b, Positions are corrected for atmospheric jitter, and shown in both right ascension (a) and declination (b), with 1σ uncertainties (often smaller than the marker size). Corresponding pairs of ejecta have matching colours and marker shapes. The core (C) is shown by filled black circles, and does not appear to move systematically over time. The best-fitting proper motions are shown as dashed (northern) and solid (southern) lines. The motion in declination is larger than that in right ascension for all components. Other than N8 and N9, all components move ballistically away from the core. Source data

  4. Extended Data Fig. 4 Light curves for the individual components as a function of time on 22 June 2015.

    Corresponding pairs of ejecta have matching colours and marker shapes, with empty markers for northern components and filled markers for southern components. Uncertainties are shown at 1σ. The top curve (empty black circles) indicates the integrated 15.4-GHz light curve (including the core source, C). Source data

  5. Extended Data Fig. 5 Slim-disk precession parameters.

    a, Calculated precession time scales and b, spherization radii (where the disk becomes geometrically thicker), as a function of the Eddington-scaled mass-accretion rate, \(\dot{m}\), and the dimensionless spin parameter a. Red lines illustrate the minimal impact of changing the fraction εw of the accretion power used to launch the inner disk wind. The grey horizontal line in panel a shows the 18 mHz frequency of the most compelling X-ray QPO20. For precession time scales on the order of minutes, we would need Eddington-scaled accretion rates of 10–100 \({\dot{m}}_{{\rm{E}}{\rm{d}}{\rm{d}}}\) (depending on the black-hole spin), corresponding to spherization radii of 60–400 rg.

  6. Extended Data Table 1 VLBA observing log for the June 2015 outburst of V404 Cygni
  7. Extended Data Table 2 Measured position angles on the plane of the sky for the 8.4-GHz monitoring observations
  8. Extended Data Table 3 Measured component parameters for the observations of 22 June 2015
  9. Extended Data Table 4 Prior distributions for the parameters of the atmospheric jitter correction model
  10. Extended Data Table 5 Inferred physical parameters for our identified paired ejecta from 22 June 2015

Supplementary information

  1. Video 1: Video showing the evolution of the jet morphology over four hours on 22 June 2015.

    Time (indicated in UT) has been sped up by a factor of 1000. In the 103 separate snapshot images, we identify twelve separate components, together with a persistent core. Ejected components appear to move ballistically outwards over time, with varying proper motions and position angles, implying precession of the jet axis. Images have been corrected for atmospheric jitter (see Methods). Contours are at ±(√2)n times the rms noise level of 3 mJy beam−1, where n=3,4,5,.... Top colour bar is in units of mJy beam−1.

Source data

  1. Source Data Fig. 1

  2. Source Data Fig. 2

  3. Source Data Fig. 3

  4. Source Data Fig. 4

  5. Source Data Extended Data Fig. 1

  6. Source Data Extended Data Fig. 2

  7. Source Data Extended Data Fig. 3

  8. Source Data Extended Data Fig. 4

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About this article

Fig. 1: VLBA monitoring of the radio jets during the 2015 outburst of V404 Cygni.
Fig. 2: Position angles of jet components.
Fig. 3: Total angular separations from the core for all jet components on 22 June 2015.
Fig. 4: Constraints on the jet speed and inclination angle to the line of sight.
Extended Data Fig. 1: Position angles of the jet components on 22 June 2015.
Extended Data Fig. 2: Best-fitting proper motions of the different components on 22 June 2015.
Extended Data Fig. 3: Motion of the observed components on 22 June 2015.
Extended Data Fig. 4: Light curves for the individual components as a function of time on 22 June 2015.
Extended Data Fig. 5: Slim-disk precession parameters.

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