Scientists Observe Matter Falling Into Black Hole at 56,000 Miles Per Second

Black holes can pull objects in at a third the speed of light, according to new findings.

Researchers at the University of Leicester observed matter the mass of Earth falling into a black hole. Published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on September 3, the study reported the first time scientists have witnessed a mass falling directly into a black hole at such high speeds.

"We saw the whole thing, we believe, and we were able to measure the amount of matter falling," Ken Pounds, a professor at the University of Leicester and author on the paper told Newsweek. "It was something around the mass of the Earth, falling in, in about a day."

Pounds practices X-ray astronomy, which uses X-rays to observe and detect objects in space. Using the European Space Agency's orbiting XMM-Newton X-ray observatory, the team looked at a supermassive black hole that has 40 million solar mass, which means 40 million times the mass of the sun. Nearly every galaxy has a supermassive black hole at the center, including our own, the Milky Way. This black hole is located at the center of the galaxy PG211+143, which is about one billion light-years away.

Typically, when gas falls into black holes, it orbits the hole until it gradually enters. The gas spirals as it enters, getting hotter and hotter as it speeds up, and therefore more luminous. This is how they're able to detect the falling mass.

"As matter gets close to the black hole, it gets heated up to temperatures where the main light coming from that matter is in X-rays." Pounds said. That matter they observed was particularly hot. "The material would have been at temperatures of maybe 10 [million] or 20 million degrees. It shines in X-radiation which is why the observation had to be made using an X-ray observatory."

Supermassive Black Hole
An artist's representation of a supermassive black hole. The black hole the researchers studied is about 1 billion light years away. GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER/NASA

This finding could mean that chaotic accretion, which is a process that allows matter to enter directly, could be possible and likely in other supermassive black holes. Over time, chaotic accretion could make supermassive black holes rotate slower, allowing them to absorb matter and grow even faster. Black holes in the early universe grew very quickly, so this research could show how they were able to do that.

Pounds thinks this finding could inspire astronomers to make similar discoveries across the universe. "I think the really interesting thing now is when will people start finding other examples like this?" he said. "My confident prediction is over the next few years other observations like this will be reported and it will gradually become another little astronomical industry."