Zooming in on a great void

From San Diego, at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society

Using an orbiting satellite tuned to listen in on the X-ray screams from black holes, astronomers have obtained the most detailed view yet of the environment surrounding these cosmic abysses.

With the help of the XMM-Newton satellite, Jane Turner of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and her team tracked the motion of hot spots in the gas disk swirling around a black hole that sits at the center of the galaxy Markarian 766.

By charting periodic changes in the energy of X rays streaming from the gas disk, Turner’s team discerned three hot spots in it. All are within a distance from the black hole roughly 5 times the space between Earth and the sun.

“Each of the hot spots is about the size of our sun, and they’re orbiting [the black hole] at an incredible 33,000 kilometers per second,” said Turner.

This is the first time that astronomers had detailed the motion of material so close to a black hole. Researchers had observed the motion of individual stars near the black hole at the center of our own galaxy, but these orbit hundreds of times farther out than the hot spots observed around Markarian 766’s black hole do.

Probing material this close to a black hole will help astronomers study the effects of general relativity in these extreme gravitational environments, Turner says.

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