Astronomers Spot Something Around a Supermassive Black Hole That Shouldn't Exist Using Hubble

Astronomers have spotted something unusual around a supermassive black hole which shouldn't be there in the first place.

Using the Hubble Space Telescope—jointly operated by NASA and the European Space Agency—an international team of astronomers have observed an unexpected swirling disc of material surrounding the black hole, which is located at the center of the spiral galaxy NGC 3147 around 130 million light-years away from Earth.

Low-luminosity galaxies like NGC 3147 are normally thought to contain insufficient matter to support a disc of material being sucked into the black holes at their center. However the disc that the astronomers observed resembles those commonly seen in much larger and more active galaxies, according to a study which is scheduled to be published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

"It's the same type of disc we see in objects that are 1,000 or even 100,000 times more luminous," Stefano Bianchi, one of the authors of the study from the Università degli Studi Roma Tre, in Rome, Italy, said in a statement. "The predictions of current models for very faint active galaxies clearly failed."

The team analyzed data collected by Hubble from the black hole in question—which has a mass about 250 million times greater than that of our sun—finding that the disc of material surrounding it was spinning at around 10 percent the speed of light.

The researchers say that their observations have also provided them with a unique opportunity to study Albert Einstein's two pioneering theories of relativity, which are key to our understanding of the universe.

This is because the disc of material is deeply embedded in the black hole's intensely powerful gravitational field, to the extent that light emanating from it is distorted.

"We've never seen the effects of both general and special relativity in visible light with this much clarity," Marco Chiaberge, another author of the study from Johns Hopkins University, said in a statement.

General relativity describes the nature of gravity in the universe while special relativity focuses on the relationship between time and space.

The distortions created by the extreme environment around the black hole mean that when we observe this light from Earth it appears in the red part of the visible light spectrum.

"This is an intriguing peek at a disc very close to a black hole, so close that the velocities and the intensity of the gravitational pull are affecting how we see the photons of light," Bianchi said.

The scientists say that in light of the latest findings, they would like to search for other discs surrounding black holes in similar low luminosity galaxies to NGC 3147.

NGC 3147
Artist’s impression of the peculiar thin disc of material circling a supermassive black hole at the heart of the spiral galaxy NGC 3147, located 130 million light-years away. ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser