Astronomers Clock a Black Hole Spinning at Half the Speed of Light

Black hole event horizon

Black hole event horizon

Researchers believe that the signal is emanating from very close to the event horizon of the black hole. That even created a burst of X-ray activity at the center of the galaxy and since the discovery, multiple observatories have had telescopes trained on the event to learn more about how precisely black holes consume stars.

The researchers believe that whatever is emitting the periodic signal must be orbiting the black hole, just outside the event horizon, near the Innermost Stable Circular Orbit, or ISCO - the smallest orbit in which a particle can safely travel around a black hole.

Black holes are massive beasts that annihilate anything that dares to cross them.

For the first time, scientists have observed a star being torn apart at the event horizon of a supermassive black hole-and have used the data to estimate how fast the black hole is spinning.

By observing the X-rays blasting from a star torn apart by a black hole, a team of researchers were able to calculate how fast the black hole spins - clocking it at almost 50 percent the speed of light.

ASASSN-14li lies at the heart of a galaxy 290 million miles away from Earth and harbors between 1 million and 10 million times the mass of the sun.

The crumbs left over from a supermassive black hole's recent meal have allowed scientists to calculate the monster's rotation rate, and the results are mind-boggling. That data, along with the black hole's mass, suggests the supermassive black hole at the centre of the event labelled ASASSN-14li is spinning at 50 percent the speed of light.

Pasham added that the supermassive black hole from their paper is exciting "because we think it's a poster child for tidal disruption flares". This "star soup" then emits energy, in the form of x-rays, into space. They saw the galaxy's central, supermassive black hole lure in and rip apart a passing star.

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In this case, scientists measured bursts of electromagnetic energy every 131 seconds over the course of 450 days.

The stellar-mass black hole, around 10 times more massive than our sun, was discovered after a enormous X-ray flare in March 2018. The elongated spot depicts a bright region in the disk, which causes a regular variation in the X-ray brightness of the source, allowing the spin rate of the black hole to be estimated.

Researchers from the USA and the Netherlands were looking at a "tidal disruption event" or TDE (the name for a star being destroyed by a black hole) that was detected in 2014. The periodicity of the X-ray flashes thus encodes key information about the size of the ISCO, which itself is dictated by how fast the black hole is spinning. "This particular event seems to match numerous theoretical predictions". "By finding instances where the mass from a shredded star glows especially brightly we can build a census of the black holes in the universe and probe how matter behaves in some of the most extreme areas and conditions in the cosmos". For all intents and purposes, the white dwarf would have been invisible to telescopes as it circled the relatively inactive, spinning black hole. This marks the first time that astronomers used X-rays, which orbit the black hole every 131 seconds, to calculate its incredible speed.

These events only emit X-rays for a few hundred years, so the odds of witnessing one is incredibly rare. The chances of detecting such a scenario would be exceedingly slim. "We would've been extremely lucky to find such a system". The original sighting in 2014 still holds up: a black hole lured in a passing star and tore it to pieces.

"In the next decade, we hope to detect more of these events", Pasham says.

The new results - which Pasham presented Wednesday (Jan. 9) at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Seattle - could help astronomers better understand how supermassive black holes evolve.

This research was supported, in part, by NASA.

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