A UK team of astronomers report the first detection of matter falling into a black hole at 30 percent of the speed of light, located in the centre of the billion-light-year-distant galaxy PG1211+143. The team, led by Professor Ken Pounds of the University of Leicester, used data from the European Space Agency’s X-ray observatory XMM-Newton to observe the black hole. Their results appear in a new paper in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
“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,” says Ken Pounds, a professor at the University of Leicester, in a press statement.
The black hole is far from Earth, around a billion light-years away in a system/galaxy with the infectious name of PG211+143, to be exact. Pounds and his group could use the European Space Agency’s X-ray observatory XMM-Newton to distinguish the dark hole.
Launched in 1999, the XMM holds three high throughput X-ray telescopes and the first optical monitor flown in an X-ray observatory. Earth’s atmosphere blocks out all space X-rays, meaning that to detect something like the surroundings of a 40-million-solar-mass (the standard unit of measurement in astronomy) black hole, you have to launch your telescope into space.
“The galaxy we were observing with XMM-Newton has a 40 million solar mass black hole which is very bright and evidently well fed,” Pounds says. “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.”
Black holes are so powerful that matter of all types gets stuck in a traffic jam of sorts trying to get in. This build-up of matter on the edge of black holes are known as accretion disks. Spinning around the black hole in a death spiral, they can become misaligned with rings of gas breaking off and colliding with each other. Known as “chaotic accretion,” the new finding shows that it could be common among supermassive black holes.
Even at the center of a faraway galaxy, chaos reigns.
Researchers suggest that this chaotic accretion might be the norm rather than the exception and many black holes do it, especially the ones rotating more slowly. By accreting gas from many directions, these black holes could increase their mass rapidly. This might potentially explain how the first black holes got so big so quickly in the early universe.