National Geographic News
Multiple images of a distant quasar are visible in this combined view from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope.

This distant quasar, as seen in a combined view from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope, is powered by the spin of a supermassive black hole.

PHOTOGRAPH BY R.C. REIS/NASA/CXC/UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published March 5, 2014

A monster black hole rotates at roughly half the speed of light, astronomers reported on Wednesday, twisting space as it turns. (Read "Star Eater" in National Geographic magazine.)

Most galaxies, including our own spiral Milky Way, possess such monster black holes. Located at the center of a quasar galaxy some 6.1 billion light-years away, the jumbo black hole in the study, which is about 200 million times as massive as our sun, is the most distant one with its spin revealed to astronomers.

"It is spinning like a top, very rapidly," says Nature study co-author Mark Reynolds of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

And the study quasar is at least four times farther away than any other galaxy whose central black hole spin has been determined, notes astrophysicist Emanuele Berti of the University of Mississippi at Oxford. That puts it closer to the era of the earliest galaxies more than 13 billion years ago. (See: "Hubble Reveals Universe's Earliest Galaxies.")

For that reason, the fast-spinning observation points to how galaxies, such as ours, grew larger billions of years ago.

"Information about the formation of a galaxy is contained in the spin of its supermassive black hole," says Berti, who was not on the study team. "That is why this observation is interesting."

In the study, the team measured the distortion of spectral lines from x-rays emitted by the black hole. That distortion reveals the spin rate of the black hole.

The x-rays themselves are emitted from a belt of star stuff circling the black hole at nearly the speed of light, Reynolds says. That material is heated to tremendous temperatures and giving off powerful bursts of energy.

Black Hole Gastronomy

The supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies are thought to grow through mergers of smaller ones, as well as the gravitational accretion of gas, dust, and stars. The black hole at the center of the Milky Way, Sagittarius A*, weighs about four million times as much as the sun. Some large galaxies have central black holes billions of times heavier than the sun.

But they all started out smaller. Whether the growth of the black hole was smooth or bumpy tells us something about how galaxies grew larger around the supermassive black holes, say Berti and other astrophysicists.

"If the growth is chaotic, then the spin of the black hole heads toward zero," Berti says. In that case, the black hole acts like a top given random kicks from side to side, which rob it of energy to spin.

If instead, the structure of a growing galaxy is orderly, with vast clouds of hydrogen gas (and the occasional smaller black hole) flowing into its center to feed the central black hole steadily, its spin will increase.

"We're seeing a very rapid spin, which points to a more coherent structure to early galaxies during their formation," Reynolds says. How our own galaxy and stars like our sun formed might be better explained by understanding this formation.

Quasar Hunt

Quasar galaxies such as the one in the study (dubbed RXJ113212 1231) are some of the most powerful sources of energy in the universe, their central black holes emitting powerful jets that shine like beacons in astronomical surveys.

The astronomers caught a lucky break to view the x-ray emissions from the quasar with NASA's Chandra x-ray telescope, Reynolds says, because it required a gravitational "lens" to view.

"The alignment of the quasar with the gravitational lens had to be just right to see it," Berti says. The gravity of closer galaxies actually bends the light from the quasar, focusing it to make it viewable from Earth—the so-called gravitational lens effect.

The team hopes to hunt out more such quasars, including ones even farther away, and divine the spin of their central black holes. In that way, an understanding of the formation conditions of early galaxies might come into focus.

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

18 comments
Michael Saunders
Michael Saunders

Now..all we need is to find life on other planets..before it find us!

Gary Proffitt
Gary Proffitt

The fact that super massive black holes being the greatest known gravitational objects in space, eject energy tells us that there are misconceptions about the event horizon point within these systems preventing all matter from escaping, thus there must be a complex structure to these systems that allows for bursts of energy to be released beyond the great effect of the massive gravitational pull.

Intan Baharuddin
Intan Baharuddin

well, with such mega gravity surely all the radiation & dust & what's not will be pulled inwards & dissapear like into a sink-hole that is dark & can't be seen , hence called black hole..not exactly a hole with a pit..l mean, who can tell & see if there is an end far beyond it? 

Derek L.
Derek L.

I am a newbie to NatGeo. Just following an article on Black holes.  I am perplexed why everyone refers to them as black holes. Everything I have read indicates they have mass, they rotate, are the imploded remnants of suns, with crazy gravity. So why a hole, a hole to me means something totally different. An empty passage to something else or like when you unplug the sink and everything goes down the drain :- ) ? Just curious if someone could explain this because everything I read contradicts it being a "hole".

Daleri Rileda
Daleri Rileda

This is of great interest because not only does it "twist space", it also dialates time slowing it down to a stop because of the combined factors of speed and gravity. It means the universe consists of a fabrication of expanded time the same as expanded space. That means time is relative to where you are in the universe in relation to speed through space and gravity. It means you cannot use expanded time or expanded space as a measure of time because time is a physical construct that orignated from no time.

Kevin Bauer
Kevin Bauer

  This would be an interesting article if it weren't  for 1 fact....There are NO BLACK HOLES in Space.Doesn't anyone ever wonder why we have no pictures or recorded observations of a Black Hole?

Our Universe is ruled by Electricity and Magnetic Force not Gravity. Even Einstein had the integrity to state that he was not happy with his Theory of Relativity because he totally disregarded Electricity and Magnetic Force in Space. The photo used in this article is not a Black Hole but a,"looking down the barrel" picture of a Plasma Pinch.

 Peace  Y

David Rankin
David Rankin

@Derek Long  


I believe they refer to it as a hole, because it punches a "hole" in space time. 

Jesse Paul
Jesse Paul

@Derek Long  Black holes pull things in with their immense gravitational pull making it inescapable including light. There is no "hole" in the center per say, but black holes act almost as a hole in space as everything around it gets pulled in.

Abhai Kollara
Abhai Kollara

@Derek Long  It's called a hole in a sense that something that goes into it never returns. The gravity is so strong that not even light escapes it

Rajesh Menon
Rajesh Menon

@Kevin Bauer Black Holes absorb even light .Only if an object emits light can it be seen by the eye. If it doesn't , its presence has to be inferred by some other method like the strong emission of x-rays 

Carlos Monte
Carlos Monte

@Jesse Paul @Derek LongHi Jesse,


You are perfectly right with the "there is no hole", but black holes do not pull anything. In fact the "hole" is just a 360 degres of event horizon where Matter just falls from the outer event horizon into the event horizon itself and toward the Singularity.


Regards.

Gary Proffitt
Gary Proffitt

Energy does escape even from SMBHs as there are many candidates of imagines that show jet streams of matter travelling to great distances in space...

Robert Shannon
Robert Shannon

@Kevin Bauer @Daleri Rileda  Wal Thornhil is right up there with Ray Comfort, all he does in those videos is bash theories, cherry pick, and take quotes out of context, and generally trash talks anything that aren't HIS beliefs. sounds more like a religious zealot to me.It's true that mathematics shouldn't be the ONLY method of observing or postulating the universe, it does however have a big part in it....mathematics is the ONLY way that a space probe can make it to mars for example....an astronomical feat in of itself!

This guy is mumbling inane crap, why do all the colossal nut jobs that make it to YouTube come from Australia?, no offense to the country or its people, just saying.


also, it's on YouTube...it must be true!  

Kevin Bauer
Kevin Bauer

@Swiftright Right @Kevin Bauer    Astronomy will hopefully lead us to the origins of our Universe,it was not the big bang,and ultimately our creation,there are Scientists who believe Darwin was not correct in his model of Evolution and it is beginning to show with genetic decoding. If we can understand ourselves better with a more accurate picture of the Universe then perhaps man can start working on a better World for ourselves.  There are many Wonders here on Earth that may have been carved out originally by events in Space,The Grand Canyon is one such wonder and some of the patterns in the Earth in and around the Canyon as seen from Space sure do bear a resemblance to the patterns of severe Electrical scarring coming from Space.

So Astronomy and our shiny "Blue Marble" and the wonders contained therein are related.

  Peace  Y

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