The X-ray source Cygnus X-1 was discovered by sounding rockets in 1964 and is perhaps the oldest and best known "black hole candidate". Its celestial coordinates were poorly known until 1971, when simultaneous radio flares and X-ray flares were observed which enabled the X-ray source to be associated with a 9th magnitude O-star known as HDE 226868. This star was subsequently shown to be a single-lined spectroscopic binary with an orbital period of about 5.6 days. However, owing to difficulties with measuring the system geometry and the distance to the source, the mass of the dark companion remained elusive. In 1974, Stephen Hawking and Kip Thorne famously made a wager on the nature of the dark companion in Cygnus X-1, with Hawking wagering that the dark companion was not a black hole. Eventually the consensus was that Cygnus X-1 does indeed contain a black hole, and Hawking conceded the bet in 1990. In the following years many estimates for the black hole mass appeared in the literature, and most of them had large uncertainties, mainly owing to the difficulty of measuring the distance to the source. In this talk I will describe how we were able to use VLBI radio observations to measure a precise distance to the source, and how, in turn, this precise distance allowed us to obtain precise masses for the component stars in Cygnus X-1. Using the refined distance and geometry of the binary, it is possible to measure the relativistic spin parameter a* of the black hole using the X-ray continuum fitting technique. We find that the black hole spin is nearly maximal with a* > 0.9985 (3σ).
- Strong Gravity
- Scientific Series