Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
Jan. 10, 2005
Close to Black Holes' Edges, Scientists Make Two Discoveries
NASA affiliated scientists are reporting two new results about black holes today at the American Astronomical Society meeting in San Diego.
One discovery involves a stellar-size black hole in our galaxy. Scientists detected streams of gas that appear to be surfing on a wave of space as the gas falls toward the black hole. This provides compelling evidence for an exotic prediction of Einstein's theory of general relativity: how a spinning black hole can drag the fabric of space around with it, creating a choppy sea of space that distorts all that passes through it on a descent into the black hole.
The other discovery involves a super massive black hole in a galaxy more than 170 million light years away. Scientists clocked three separate clumps of hot iron gas whipping around the black hole at 20,000 miles per second, which is more than 10 percent of light speed. This marks the first time scientists could trace individual blobs of shredded matter on a complete journey around such a black hole.
Dr. Jane Turner, jointly affiliated with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., and the University of Maryland Baltimore County, led the super massive black hole observation with the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton satellite. She said if this black hole were placed in our Solar System, it would appear like a dark abyss spread out nearly as wide as Mercury's orbit. The three clumps of matter detected would be at about Jupiter's distance. They orbit the black hole in a lightning-quick 27 hours; compared to the 12 years it takes Jupiter to orbit the sun.
Turner's team's result provides a crucial measurement that has long been missing from black hole studies: an orbital period. Knowing this, scientists can measure black hole mass and other characteristics that have long eluded them. The team observed a well-known galaxy named Markarian 766 in the constellation Coma Berenices (Bernice's Hair).
Dr. Jon Miller of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., led the spacetime-warp observation with NASA's Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, a workhorse now in its tenth year of operation. The black hole is called GRS 1915+105. It is approximately 40,000 light years away in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle.
Miller's team found evidence of how light loses energy as it climbs out of a black hole's gravitational well. The team also found that changes in the strength of the light signal were occurring periodically, as if a passing wave were lifting the light and boosting the energy.
More information about the XMM-Newton black hole orbit result is available on the Web at: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/universe/blackhole_race.html
More information about the Rossi Explorer spacetime-warp result is available on the Web at: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/universe/blackhole_surfing.html
For information about NASA and agency programs on the Web, visit: http://www.nasa.gov
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