Nav: Home

Hubble discovers mysterious black hole disc

July 11, 2019

Astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have observed an unexpected thin disc of material encircling a supermassive black hole at the heart of the spiral galaxy NGC 3147, located 130 million light-years away.

The presence of the black hole disc in such a low-luminosity active galaxy has astronomers surprised. Black holes in certain types of galaxies such as NGC 3147 are considered to be starving as there is insufficient gravitationally captured material to feed them regularly. It is therefore puzzling that there is a thin disc encircling a starving black hole that mimics the much larger discs found in extremely active galaxies.

Of particular interest, this disc of material circling the black hole offers a unique opportunity to test Albert Einstein's theories of relativity. The disc is so deeply embedded in the black hole's intense gravitational field that the light from the gas disc is altered, according to these theories, giving astronomers a unique peek at the dynamic processes close to a black hole.

"We've never seen the effects of both general and special relativity in visible light with this much clarity," said team member Marco Chiaberge of AURA for ESA, STScI and Johns Hopkins Univeristy.

The disc's material was measured by Hubble to be whirling around the black hole at more than 10% of the speed of light. At such extreme velocities, the gas appears to brighten as it travels toward Earth on one side, and dims as it speeds away from our planet on the other. This effect is known as relativistic beaming. Hubble's observations also show that the gas is embedded so deep in a gravitational well that light is struggling to escape, and therefore appears stretched to redder wavelengths. The black hole's mass is around 250 million times that of the Sun.

"This is an intriguing peek at a disc very close to a black hole, so close that the velocities and the intensity of the gravitational pull are affecting how we see the photons of light," explained the study's first author, Stefano Bianchi, of Università degli Studi Roma Tre in Italy.

In order to study the matter swirling deep inside this disc, the researchers used the Hubble Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) instrument. This diagnostic tool divides the light from an object into its many individual wavelengths to determine the object's speed, temperature, and other characteristics at very high precision. STIS was integral to effectively observing the low-luminosity region around the black hole, blocking out the galaxy's brilliant light.

The astronomers initially selected this galaxy to validate accepted models about lower-luminosity active galaxies: those with malnourished black holes. These models predict that discs of material should form when ample amounts of gas are trapped by a black hole's strong gravitational pull, subsequently emitting lots of light and producing a brilliant beacon called a quasar.

"The type of disc we see is a scaled-down quasar that we did not expect to exist," Bianchi explained. "It's the same type of disc we see in objects that are 1000 or even 100 000 times more luminous. The predictions of current models for very faint active galaxies clearly failed."

The team hopes to use Hubble to hunt for other very compact discs around low-luminosity black holes in similar active galaxies.
-end-
More information

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

The team's paper will appear in the journal the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The international team of astronomers in this study consists of Stefano Bianchi (Universita` degli Studi Roma Tre, Italy), Robert Antonucci (University of California, Santa Barbara, USA), Alessandro Capetti (INAF - Osservatorio Astrofisico di Torino, Italy), Marco Chiaberge (Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA), Ari Laor (Israel Institute of Technology, Israel), Loredana Bassani (INAF/IASF Bologna, Italy), Francisco J. Carrera (CSIC-Universidad de Cantabria, Spain), Fabio La Franca (Universita` degli Studi Roma Tre, Italy), Andrea Marinucci (Universita` degli Studi Roma Tre, Italy), Giorgio Matt1 (Universita` degli Studi Roma Tre, Italy), Riccardo Middei (Universita` degli Studi Roma Tre, Italy), Francesca Panessa (INAF Istituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali, Italy).

Image credit: ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser

LinksContacts

Stefano Bianchi
Dipartimento di Matematica e Fisica, Universita` degli Studi Roma Tre
Rome, Italy
Email: bianchi@fis.uniroma3.it

Bethany Downer
ESA/Hubble, Public Information Officer
Garching, Germany
Email: bethany.downer@partner.eso.org

ESA/Hubble Information Centre

Related Black Hole Articles:

Eyeballing a black hole's mass
There are no scales for weighing black holes. Yet astrophysicists from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology have devised a new way for indirectly measuring the mass of a black hole, while also confirming its existence.
First 'overtones' heard in the ringing of a black hole
By listening for specific tones in the gravitational waves of black hole mergers, researchers are putting Albert Einstein's theories to new tests.
Black hole holograms
Japanese researchers show how a holographic tabletop experiment can be used to simulate the physics of a black hole.
Where in the universe can you find a black hole nursery?
Gravitational wave researchers at the University of Birmingham have developed a new model that could help astronomers track down the origin of heavy black hole systems in the universe.
Astronomers capture first image of a black hole
The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) -- a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes forged through international collaboration -- was designed to capture images of a black hole.
More Black Hole News and Black Hole Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Rethinking Anger
Anger is universal and complex: it can be quiet, festering, justified, vengeful, and destructive. This hour, TED speakers explore the many sides of anger, why we need it, and who's allowed to feel it. Guests include psychologists Ryan Martin and Russell Kolts, writer Soraya Chemaly, former talk radio host Lisa Fritsch, and business professor Dan Moshavi.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#537 Science Journalism, Hold the Hype
Everyone's seen a piece of science getting over-exaggerated in the media. Most people would be quick to blame journalists and big media for getting in wrong. In many cases, you'd be right. But there's other sources of hype in science journalism. and one of them can be found in the humble, and little-known press release. We're talking with Chris Chambers about doing science about science journalism, and where the hype creeps in. Related links: The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study Claims of causality in health news: a randomised trial This...