Scientists observe how black holes eat matter

Jun 11, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- For the first time, scientists have been able to observe matter falling into super massive black holes.

University of Melbourne and Anglo-Australian Observatory astronomer Dr David Floyd and colleagues have probed into a region inaccessible to telescopes until now.

Using a state-of-the-art technique called gravitational microlensing, it is the first time scientists have been able to see how black holes consume or eat matter.

Dr Floyd from the School of Physics at the University of Melbourne and the Anglo-Australian Observatory says it heralds a new era in exploring .

“This technique can probe regions just a few times larger than the black hole at the centre of a quasar in a matter of minutes, rather than decades.”

Material in the immediate vicinity of a black hole undergoes extreme compression and superheating. The result is a quasar, which emits so much energy as visible light, that it can outshine the galaxy in which it is located by many thousands of times.

“The problem is that the regions emitting these huge amounts of light are so small and their distance from Earth so mind-bogglingly far, that it has been impossible to observe them directly, and therefore to understand the part they play in the evolution of the Universe,” Dr Floyd says.

“Conditions in a quasar are so extreme that they push the laws of physics to breaking point and beyond. They are the particle accelerators of the Universe. They shape galaxies and drive the evolution of the Universe.”

The research makes use of a technique known as gravitational microlensing, where the light from a quasar passes near or through another galaxy on its way to earth. The intervening galaxy acts like a lens, enlarging and splitting the image of the quasar into several components, each of which can be analysed.

Using data from the 6.5-metre Magellan telescope in northern Chile and the NASA , Dr Floyd and his University of Melbourne colleagues, Dr Nick Bate and Professor Rachel Webster, have shown that about 99 per cent of the visible light in the quasar with which they have been working is produced in a region just a thousand times larger than the black hole itself.

“This is so tiny in astronomical terms that it would take a telescope with a lens 100 kilometres across to observe directly,” Dr Floyd says.

“It is exciting that we have been able to study these phenomena at these distances at all,” he says. “These early results are just a taste of what’s to come.”

Explore further: The Great Debate over whether the universe is small or large

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User comments : 10

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ubavontuba
3 / 5 (2) Jun 11, 2010
"Conditions in a quasar are so extreme that they push the laws of physics to breaking point and beyond.

Hmm. Really? Does this mean that we've actually observed the laws of physics being broken? How?
yyz
5 / 5 (1) Jun 11, 2010
Must be a banner week for studies of quasars via microlensing! To wit:

"Microlensing in H1413+117": http://arxiv.org/abs/1006.1995

"Adaptive Optics Observations of B0128+437: A Low-Mass, High-Redshift Gravitational Lens": http://arxiv.org/...2.2344v2

I'm not sure what quasar is being observed in the present article, but none of the authors above appear in the two papers I've linked. Good to see that this approach is being vigorously explored, for obvious reasons.

@ubavontuba,

This is press release hyperbole. I seriously doubt this phrase is lifted from the paper in question.

in7x
5 / 5 (1) Jun 11, 2010
"Breaking" the mathematical equations by producing incorrect (inconsistent) results or infinities.

You can "observe" such by collecting data that does not conform to the data curve within the margins of error.
Ensa
not rated yet Jun 11, 2010
"scientists have been able to see how black holes consume or eat matter."
I prefer to think of them as "gobbling up" matter....

Nom nom nom.....
ubavontuba
1 / 5 (1) Jun 11, 2010
"scientists have been able to see how black holes consume or eat matter."
I prefer to think of them as "gobbling up" matter....

Nom nom nom.....
Everyone knows that at the heart of every black hole, there resides a Pacman!

Ha ha!
MarkyMark
1 / 5 (1) Jun 12, 2010
"scientists have been able to see how black holes consume or eat matter."
I prefer to think of them as "gobbling up" matter....

Nom nom nom.....
Everyone knows that at the heart of every black hole, there resides a Pacman!

Ha ha!


Or a giant lolcat.
jscroft
5 / 5 (1) Jun 14, 2010
"Conditions in a quasar are so extreme that they push the laws of physics to breaking point and beyond.

Hmm. Really? Does this mean that we've actually observed the laws of physics being broken? How?


Well, if you observe a phenomenon, and it happens in the physical Universe, then wouldn't you say it obeys the laws of physics BY DEFINITION?

Now, it might be obeying laws we don't know about yet...
Skeptic_Heretic
1 / 5 (2) Jun 14, 2010
Well, if you observe a phenomenon, and it happens in the physical Universe, then wouldn't you say it obeys the laws of physics BY DEFINITION?

Now, it might be obeying laws we don't know about yet...
Unless it doesn't happen in accordance to the laws of the Universe due to interaction with a state outside of the Universe.

BHs are the home of supergravity. It's quite possible that a BH is not within our Universal reality but greatly affects our universal reality. It's very, very interesting stuff to see what the theoretical physicists are kicking out now.
frajo
3 / 5 (2) Jul 18, 2010
Unless it doesn't happen in accordance to the laws of the Universe due to interaction with a state outside of the Universe.
How do you define "outside of the universe"?
BHs are the home of supergravity.
Isn't SuGra been superseded by M theory?
It's quite possible that a BH is not within our Universal reality but greatly affects our universal reality.
Please define "not within our Universal reality".
It's very, very interesting stuff to see what the theoretical physicists are kicking out now.
Yes. And it will be very interesting to observe the clashes between beautiful theories and ugly LHC results.
Jigga
1 / 5 (2) Jul 18, 2010
How do you define "outside of the universe"?
Actually it's a question for Michio Kaku and another proponents of "parallel universes". Would you dare to ask him directly?