Astronomers Spot An 'Earth-Sized Clump of Matter' Hurtling Into A Black Hole At 30% Of The Speed Of Light

Friday, 21 September 2018 - 1:23PM
Astronomy
Physics
Black Holes
Friday, 21 September 2018 - 1:23PM
Astronomers Spot An 'Earth-Sized Clump of Matter' Hurtling Into A Black Hole At 30% Of The Speed Of Light
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NASA/JPL-Caltech
Whether it involves warping space-time so much that you can effectively time travel or bringing a 'dead' star back to life, black holes are weird. But as much as astronomers and physicists try to explain it, few people really understand how strong their pull really is. Case in point: astronomers just observed the first instance of matter falling directly into a black hole, and its speed was clocked at 30% of the speed of light. By the way, it wasn't some pea-sized piece of asteroid, either – it was a collection of gas with a mass roughly equal to planet Earth.

Normally, matter gets pulled into orbit around a black hole and circles around it for while before gradually being sucked into the hole itself, which looks similar to a glass of water being poured down a drain. Even stars are unraveled and sucked up by black holes after being warped into strand-like tendrils in a process called "spaghettification." (Yes, really.) The point is that the matter rotating around the black hole usually has a bit of speed to counteract the gravitational pull of the hole, which keeps it from falling straight in. All that matter forms a disk around the black hole (called the "accretion disk"), but sometimes multiple disks can form and collide, cancelling their speed and allowing the black hole to reel them in incredibly quickly – even at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light.



A team of scientists led by Professor Ken Pounds of the University of Leicester managed to spot this happening by observing the X-ray radiation coming from the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy PG211+143, which lies a billion light years away from Earth. "We were able to follow an Earth-sized clump of matter for about a day, as it was pulled towards the black hole, accelerating to a third of the velocity of light before being swallowed up by the hole," said Pounds. According to him, the black hole has 40 million times the mass of our Sun and is "well-fed."

We believe it.
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