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An illustration of a supermassive black hole.

An artist's concept illustrates a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun.

Illustration courtesy Caltech/NASA

An image of supermassive black hole NTC-1365.

High-quality view of NTC-1365, a supermassive black hole. Image courtesy Guido Risaliti via Nature

Andrew Fazekas

for National Geographic News

Published March 1, 2013

A superfast black hole nearly 60 million light-years away appears to be pushing the ultimate speed limit of the universe, a new study says.

For the first time, astronomers have managed to measure the rate of spin of a supermassive black hole—and it's been clocked at 84 percent of the speed of light, or the maximum allowed by the law of physics.

"The most exciting part of this finding is the ability to test the theory of general relativity in such an extreme regime, where the gravitational field is huge, and the properties of space-time around it are completely different from the standard Newtonian case," said lead author Guido Risaliti, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and INAF-Arcetri Observatory in Italy. (Related: "Speedy Star Found Near Black Hole May Test Einstein Theory.")

Notorious for ripping apart and swallowing stars, supermassive black holes live at the center of most galaxies, including our own Milky Way. (See black hole pictures.)

They can pack the gravitational punch of many million or even billions of suns—distorting space-time in the region around them, not even letting light escape their clutches.

Galactic Monster

The predatory monster that lurks at the core of the relatively nearby spiral galaxy NGC 1365 is estimated to weigh in at about two million times the mass of the sun, and stretches some 2 million miles (3.2 million kilometers) across—more than eight times the distance between Earth and the moon, Risaliti said. (Also see "Black Hole Blast Biggest Ever Recorded.")

Risaliti and colleagues' unprecedented discovery was made possible thanks to the combined observations from NASA's high-energy x-ray detectors on its Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) probe and the European Space Agency's low-energy, x-ray-detecting XMM-Newton space observatory.

Astronomers detected x-ray particle remnants of stars circling in a pancake-shaped accretion disk surrounding the black hole, and used this data to help determine its rate of spin.

By getting a fix on this spin speed, astronomers now hope to better understand what happens inside giant black holes as they gravitationally warp space-time around themselves.

Even more intriguing to the research team is that this discovery will shed clues to black hole's past, and the evolution of its surrounding galaxy.

Tracking the Universe's Evolution

Supermassive black holes have a large impact in the evolution of their host galaxy, where a self-regulating process occurs between the two structures.

"When more stars are formed, they throw gas into the black hole, increasing its mass, but the radiation produced by this accretion warms up the gas in the galaxy, preventing more star formation," said Risaliti.

"So the two events—black hole accretion and formation of new stars—interact with each other."

Knowing how fast black holes spin may also help shed light how the entire universe evolved. (Learn more about the origin of the universe.)

"With a knowledge of the average spin of galaxies at different ages of the universe," Risaliti said, "we could track their evolution much more precisely than we can do today."

23 comments
Someone Anyone
Someone Anyone

"Speed of light" refers to linear speed.  Distance over time, kilometers per second.  Rate of rotation is measured in angle over time. Revolutions per minute.

Saying something "spins at the speed of light" makes about as much sense as "spins at 100 tons" or "spins at 2000 volts".

Vector Baccam
Vector Baccam

I'm no genius, but I'm certain the speed of light is not the fastest. There are many that we do not know about the Universe, and even if we do, there are many different things to understand. Our math, science, and physics equations are limited to our knowing, but what about other life forms out there? What are their understanding of math, science, and physics? Maybe our education is the lowest compared to them? I think we can go beyond these things we say that has a limit. Just think... a black hole traps light. You have to travel faster than light to escape from a black hole.

Ulka Gokhale
Ulka Gokhale

Black holes are too complex to comprehend. 

Soap Berries
Soap Berries

It's difficult to comprehend gravity so extreme that it even sucks light to itself. How can we ever study these black holes when we can't get any of our technology near them?

Alex Thorne
Alex Thorne

I've always wondered, what is after a black hole? Is there another universe or just.. BLACK?? I wish someday, if I have chance to study in Harvard, I'll find the answer. And Andrew Turton: Going back in time has been tried before. But to go back, every ''thing''s cells, organisms has to tear apart and for example 1 second later, it has to come back together, which is something impossible, as I know they are working on it.

Andrew Turton
Andrew Turton

i think objets can move faster than the speed of light, and if so there could be a way of traveling back in time or if not to travel back in time then to look back in tme, i have no education but a head that will not leave me alone, i even think i may know how to build a chariot like gods using todays technology in if it is so it could have been built years ago, trapped in the uk ME

John C.
John C.

Astonishing that the 1200 cc (avg) space within a human cranium can apprehend something so vastly beyond itself on every scale imaginable. What are we, really?

Reid Barnes
Reid Barnes

"By getting a fix on this spin speed, astronomers now hope to better understand what happens inside giant black holes as they gravitationally warp space-time around themselves."  Not unlike this, it seemed Einstein had the measurements to prove relativity early on.  He predicted light would bend around the sun, famously measured by Author Eddington during a solar eclipse, all based on his space-time curvature.  Eddington’s explanation was that space-time is warped by gravity, according to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. However this explanation is based on a misconception spawned by flawed self-contradicting non-Euclidean geometry in the theory.  This is explained in the Facebook Note:  Are We Clinging to Relativistic Space-Time Concepts that Distort Reality?   https://www.facebook.com/notes/reid-barnes/are-we-clinging-to-relativistic-space-time-concepts-that-distort-reality/505042069548372

Arnold Norman
Arnold Norman

yes i think if you go one way long enough you will end up back where you started in space and they will see i am right soon as they can look far enough and see the back of us ---i beleive this is right but i need to do some more work on it yet

Arnold Norman
Arnold Norman

well woopy due and just how far are we able to see out into space so far and could it be or is it posible that somewhere out there is the end of space like back when the found out there was an end to the ocean i mean if you go one way in space far enough do you get back where you started if that is true then it would be a 8th demention of some kind--so figure it out ok we will be waiting for your answer

Darien Phoenix
Darien Phoenix

Does this mean Stephen Hawking will actually win a Nobel Prize now?

Jimmy Vick
Jimmy Vick

@Ulka Gokhale 

Sorry man, but I am all over it... the hubris of man has always been consensus based on assumptions and I am right now pointing out a big one.

There is a current scientific consensus that black holes must preserve physical information in their horizons somehow.  "Physical information" referring to quantum determinism and reversibility in the form of the quantum evolution operators via some as yet undiscovered form of quantum gravity. 


Now, even without a formal theory of quantum gravity, there is a huge problem even if we did have one... If black holes preserve information in their horizons it would be in a constant state of change.  Material is constantly being added to a black hole so the horizon would always be preserving new physical information over time. Meaning all black hole horizons are utterly unique entities based on the black holes mass.  

In this case there are 2 possibilities with regard to theoretical black hole coalescence events or mergers.  One, we must discover a way to describe quantum gravity then use that theory to mathematically explain how the constantly changing horizons of 2 black holes can scramble unique physical information preserved in their respective horizons and some how sort it out later after they merge... Which I think is utterly irrational and impossible thereby calling it the "Black Hole Merger Paradox" or "Black Hole Merger Problem" if you will.

 OR

Black Holes can never merge.  Binary black holes must synthesize each other by an unknown method to preserve their unique quantum evolution operators preserved in their horizons.  Singulosynthesis:  Is a deterministic process by which binary black holes must fail based on their mass to preserve the physical information in their unique horizons at the expense of time.  What might failing black holes synthesize you might ask?  Well... what elements on the periodic table have no definitive method for creating them?  Big hint incoming... the first 4.

So hang on just a second...  If this implies how the universe began... How can we reconstruct and mathematically describe a process that created the universe?   Black hole mergers still occur thankfully, albeit on a less frequent basis.  This event is on the very edge of our perception right now.  We must observe some unique patterns in gravitational waves, I have four in mind right now.  They are unique in the sense that nobody has thought of them and therefore nobody is looking for them.  Once these unique generic patterns can be located, we can focus our observations at pinning down the true signature of a failing black hole precisely.  This will reveal the mass loss rate of a failing black hole.  

With that information in hand we can then simulate the true sub Planck environment of a black hole, establish a quantum theory of relativity, amend the second law of thermal dynamics, and figure out a great deal more.  Otherwise the universe is inherently irrational.

Unfortunately, Houston has a problem.  Right now gravitational interferometers are using exact predetermined theoretic gravitational wave signatures to hunt for patterns in the observed data.  Patterns based on the assumption that black holes do indeed coalesce.  My idea requires the opposite method to be detected.  

The gravitational waves I seek must be observed then quantified.  However all may be good... if I am right, black holes will likely be found using the predetermined theoretical signature method.  If they are found, I predict they will deviate from their expected behavior drastically at some point.  It will be important to not loose track of them when they do.


Brett Davis
Brett Davis

@Alex Thorne You should study or read about Stephen Hawkings theories about what lies on the other side of black holes.  Some theories even state that perhaps each blackhole is the location of a "budding" universe growing off of our own, filling that new universe with matter and energy that is absorbed and transferred through the event horizon and beyond.

Nicholas Glennon
Nicholas Glennon

@Andrew Turton @Alex Thorne With the current model, it is not possible for any particle (with the exception of photons, since they are massless) to reach the speed of light. Essentially, as an object approaches the speed of light, any forces acting on them effectively approach zero, so the particle cannot be pushed to or past the speed of light. Also Alex, not sure what you mean by what's "past" a black hole, a black hole isn't an actual hole, it's simply extremely dense mass formed by a collapsing star.

Aggeliki Kokkinidou
Aggeliki Kokkinidou

@Nicholas Glennon @Andrew Turton @Alex ThorneBlack holes ARE NOT super massive objects with huge density. This is a common misconception. There's no matter in a black hole anymore, it has become energy and this energy has been used to distort space and time. This is what happens according to the equations of general relativity. Inside the black hole the known laws of physics don't work anymore.

Aggeliki Kokkinidou
Aggeliki Kokkinidou

it would be better to make a little research and try to understand how these theories explain such phenomena before posting an opinion as a fact!

Aggeliki Kokkinidou
Aggeliki Kokkinidou

@Simon Manningenergy and mass are the same thing according to Einstein's equation...... and it appears they can both distort time and space......

Simon Manning
Simon Manning

Gravity distorts space-time. Mass and distance are what affect/create gravity. Black holes are tremendous amounts of mass compacted by the force of their own gravity into a relatively tiny volume. Incidentally, if they were pure energy, they would have relatively negligible mass, therefore negligible gravity.

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