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Animations: X-rays Spot Spinning Black Holes Across Cosmic Sea
A Tour of Lensed Quasars
(Credit: NASA/CXC/A. Hobart)
[Runtime: 02:37]

With closed-captions (at YouTube)

Like whirlpools in the ocean, spinning black holes in space create a swirling torrent around them. However, black holes do not create eddies of wind or water. Rather, they generate disks of gas and dust heated to hundreds of millions of degrees that glow in X-ray light.

Using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and chance alignments across billions of light years, astronomers have deployed a new technique to measure the spin of five supermassive black holes. The matter in one of these cosmic vortices is swirling around its black hole at greater than about 70% of the speed of light.

The astronomers took advantage of a natural phenomenon called a gravitational lens. With just the right alignment, the bending of space-time by a massive object, such as a large galaxy, can magnify and produce multiple images of a distant object, as predicted by Einstein.

In this latest research, astronomers used Chandra and gravitational lensing to study six quasars, each consisting of a supermassive black hole rapidly consuming matter from a surrounding accretion disk. Gravitational lensing of the light from each of these quasars by an intervening galaxy has created multiple images of each quasar.

The key advance made by researchers in this study was that they took advantage of "microlensing," where individual stars in the intervening, lensing galaxy provided additional magnification of the light from the quasar. A higher magnification means a smaller region is producing the X-ray emission.

How can these black holes spin so quickly? The researchers think that these supermassive black holes likely grew by accumulating most of their material over billions of years from an accretion disk spinning with a similar orientation and direction of spin, rather than from random directions. Like a merry-go-round that keeps getting pushed in the same direction, the black holes kept picking up speed. This information helps astronomers learn more about how these supermassive black holes grew and evolved in the early Universe.


A Quick Look at Lensed Quasars
(Credit: NASA/CXC/A. Hobart)
[Runtime: 1:08]

Astronomers have used NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to estimatehow fast some distant quasars are spinning.

Quasars are supermassive black holes that are rapidly ingesting matter from disks of material swirling around them.

The researchers took advantage of a natural phenomenon called a gravitational lens first predicted by Einstein to better study these quasars.

With just the right alignment, the bending of space-time by a massive object, such as a large galaxy, can magnify and produce multiple images of a distant object.

Astronomers were able to measure the spin rate by isolating the region that X-rays were coming from on these swirling disks.

They found that one of these disks was spinning around its black hole at 70% of the speed of light or more.

Knowing that these supermassive black holes were spinning so quickly billions of years ago tells scientists about how they grew and evolved in the early Universe.




Return to X-rays Spot Spinning Black Holes Across Cosmic Sea (July 3, 2019)