Black Holes

Astronomers Have Detected Matter Falling Into Black Hole At 1/3 The Speed Of Light

Astronomers Have Detected Matter Falling Into Black Hole At 1/3 The Speed Of Light

A UK team has observed the first detection of matter falling into a supermassive black hole at a speed nearing 90,000 kilometers (56,000) miles per second, which is strangely, only about 30 percent the speed of light.

Reported in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, a team of researchers have used X-ray observations to track material movement at the center of a black hole. The black hole in question is at the center of galaxy PG1211+143. Using the XMM-Newton they were able to detect an “earth-sized” ball of matter accelerating at 1/3 the speed of light.

In a statement lead author Professor Ken Pound, from the University of Leicester, says “The galaxy we were observing with XMM-Newton has a 40 million solar mass black hole, which is very bright and evidently well fed. Indeed some 15 years ago we detected a powerful wind indicating the hole was being over-fed. While such winds are now found in many active galaxies, PG1211+143 has now yielded another ‘first’, with the detection of matter plunging directly into the hole itself. We were able to follow an Earth-sized clump of matter for about a day, as it was pulled towards the black hole, accelerating to a third of the velocity of light before being swallowed up by the hole.”


In the study, the team discovered an interesting phenomena in the system that explains the rapid acceleration of matter falling into a super-massive blackhole. Material in the eccretion disk is actually misaligned with the black hole’s rotation, and because black holes are so heavy they drag space time as they rotate (known as frame dragging) which breaks the disk up into individual rings.

Those rings often collide, and when they do, material from those disks hurdle directly into the center of the black hole rather than spiralling towards it. This massive pull is what generates the immense speeds seen in the study.


Below, you can see this phenomena in action:

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Lauren Webber
Lauren studies astronomy and physics at NYU.