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Zooming in on a great void

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8:47am, January 19, 2005

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.

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