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Rethinking Black Hole Accretion Discs

TitleRethinking Black Hole Accretion Discs
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2016
AuthorsSalvesen, G
Academic DepartmentAstrophysical and Planetary Sciences
Number of Pages218
Date Published07-2016
UniversityUniversity of Colorado
CityBoulder, CO

Accretion discs are staples of astrophysics. Tapping into the gravitational potential energy of the accreting material, these discs are highly efficient machines that produce copious radiation and extreme outflows. While interesting in their own right, accretion discs also act as tools to study black holes and directly  influence the properties of the Universe. Black hole X-ray binaries are fantastic natural laboratories for studying accretion disc physics and black hole phenomena. Among many of the curious behaviors exhibited by these systems are black hole state transitions––complicated cycles of dramatic brightening and dimming. Using X-ray observations with high temporal cadence, we show that the evolution of the accretion disc spectrum during black hole state transitions can be described by a variable disc atmospheric structure without invoking a radially truncated disc geometry. The accretion disc spectrum can be a powerful diagnostic for measuring black hole spin if the effects of the disc atmosphere on the emergent spectrum are well-understood; however, properties of the disc atmosphere are largely unconstrained. Using statistical methods, we decompose this black hole spin measurement technique and show that modest uncertainties regarding the disc atmosphere can lead to erroneous spin measurements. The vertical structure of the disc is difficult to constrain due to our ignorance of the contribution to hydrostatic balance by magnetic fields, which are fundamental to the accretion process. Observations of black hole X-ray binaries and the accretion environments near supermassive black holes provide mounting evidence for strong magnetization. Performing numerical simulations of accretion discs in the shearing box approximation, we impose a net vertical magnetic  flux that allows us to effectively control the level of disc magnetization. We study how dynamo activity and the properties of turbulence driven by the magnetorotational instability depend on the magnetized state of the gas, spanning weak-to-strong disc magnetization regimes. We also demonstrate that a background poloidal magnetic flux is required to form and sustain a strongly magnetized accretion disc. This thesis motivates the need for understanding how magnetic fields affect the observed spectrum from black hole accretion discs.