Image Gallery

Text Size

Whirling Black Holes
01.10.08
Illustration of a black hole 'swallowing' matter.

Results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, combined with new theoretical calculations, provide one of the best pieces of evidence yet that many supermassive black holes are spinning extremely rapidly. The images on the left show 4 out of the 9 large galaxies included in the Chandra study, each containing a supermassive black hole in its center.

The Chandra images show pairs of huge bubbles, or cavities, in the hot gaseous atmospheres of the galaxies, created in each case by jets produced by a central supermassive black hole. Studying these cavities allows the power output of the jets to be calculated. This sets constraints on the spin of the black holes when combined with theoretical models.

The Chandra images were also used to estimate how much fuel is available for each supermassive black hole, using a simple model for the way matter falls towards such an object. The artist's impression on the right side of the main graphic shows gas within a "sphere of influence" falling straight inwards towards a black hole before joining a rapidly spinning disk of matter near the center. Most of the material in this disk is swallowed by the black hole, but some of it is swept outwards in jets (colored blue) by quickly spinning magnetic fields close to the black hole.

Previous work with these Chandra data showed that the higher the rate at which matter falls towards these supermassive black holes, the higher their power output is in jets. However, without detailed theory the implications of this result for black hole behavior were unclear. The new study uses these Chandra results combined with leading theoretical models for the production of jets, plus general relativity, to show that the supermassive black holes in these galaxies must be spinning at close to the maximum rate. If black holes are spinning at this limit, material can be dragged around them at close to the speed of light, the speed limit from Einstein's theory of relativity.

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC Illustration: CXC/M. Weiss