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Unexpected observation made at the edge of a black hole

Credits: ESO / M. Kornmessers

A team of astronomers report that they have seen an enormous mass of matter being swallowed by a black hole at almost a third of the speed of light. This is the first time it has been detailed in the monthly reports of the Royal Astronomical Society

Black holes are cosmic beasts.  They are so massive that nothing escapes them.  Matter, light, or everything that gets a little too close to them ends inevitably in the siphon .  What happens after is for the moment unknown. We can still see what happens at the edge of black holes. When active, the edges of black holes can be found surrounded by a disc of spinning matter before falling at speeds approaching 10% of the speed of light. A bit like water sucked into a siphon. The material  follows a circular path, traveling inward along rotating clouds before disappearing. However this usual route did not happen this time round.

Some researchers think that immense black holes bring about what is called a “chaotic accretion”.  In other words, rather than following a circular route open by rotating clouds, a mass of matter could in some instances – fall directly into the black hole at any angle.  This is exactly what happened with PG1211 + 143, a very active black hole seen with an X-ray spacial telescope, XMM-Newton.

Astronomers explain that they have seen a mass of matter the size of Earth composed of iron, calcium, argon, sulphur and silicon, fall straight into the black hole without doing the rotation phase.  The whole process happened within a third of the speed of light.  It was like this mass was sucked up in one go. “This may be the first piece of direct chaotic accretion evidence in (an active galactic core), where accretion disks are generally misaligned on the black hole,” the study states. This matter mass could be composed of stuck together particles following collisions in different misaligned rings, before losing momentum and falling into the black hole.

To see these chains of matter fall into the black hole, you just have to look in the line of sight,” explains Ken Pounds, Professor of Physics Emeritus at the University of Leicester, to Gizmodo. This is a rare opportunity. Unique, one could even say. However due to the rarity of the situation, other similar observations will be needed to definitively confirm the theory of “chaotic accretion”.


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