Hubble Space Telescope Finds Strange Black Hole Disk That Shouldn’t Exist

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An artist's impression of the supermassive black hole disk in NGC 3147. (Photo Credit: ESA / Hubble Space Telescope / M. Kornmesser)

Astronomers using the NASA/European Space Agency (ESA) Hubble Space Telescope have spotted a mysterious disk of thin material surrounding a supermassive black hole.

The strange disk was observed in the center of NGC 3147, a spiral galaxy that’s located 130 million light-years away, said a Hubble Space Telescope press release. According to current astronomical theories, this bizarre disk shouldn’t exist, since the black hole appeared to be very malnourished and lack gravitationally-captured material. What’s strange about this disk though is that it’s deeply placed in the black hole’s intense gravitational field, with its light being intensified and stretched by the black hole’s powerful pull.

The astronomers, which published their research in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, set out to test Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity. General relativity depicts gravity as the curvature of space, while special relativity details the relationship between space and time.

“This is an intriguing peek at a disk very close to a black hole, so close that the velocities and the intensity of the gravitational pull are affecting how the photons of light look,” said Stefano Bianchi of Università degli Studi Roma Tre, in Rome, Italy. “We cannot understand the data unless we include the theories of relativity.”

A Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC 3147 is next to an artist’s illustration of the supermassive black hole located at its center. (Left Photo Credit: NASA / ESA / S. Bianchi – Università degli Studi Roma Tre University / A. Laor (Technion-Israel Institute of Technology) / M. Chiaberge – ESA, STScI, and JHU) (Right Photo Credit: NASA / ESA / A. Field and L. Hustak – STScl)

The team chose NGC 3147 to confirm the activity of lower-luminosity active galaxies, also known as those with black holes that lack material. Models hypothesize that an accretion disk develops when large amounts of gas become trapped by a black hole’s intense gravitational pull. From there, this matter casts off a lot of light and produces a quaser in most “healthy” black holes. Once less material is drawn into the disk, it starts to disintegrate, dim, and change its structure.

According to Einstein’s theories of relativity, the disk is way embedded in the black hole’s strong gravitational field that light from the gas disk has changed. Hubble data also noticed that the material swirling around the black hole was moving more than 10 percent of the speed of light. At these fast speeds, the gas appears to illuminate more as it travels towards our planet on one side and dims as it hurtles away from Earth on the other side (also known as relative beaming). Hubble’s other observations also show that the black hole’s mass is approximately 250 million suns.

“Without Hubble, we wouldn’t have been able to see this because the black hole region has a low luminosity. The luminosities of the stars in the galaxy outshine anything in the nucleus,” said Marco Chiaberge of the ESA. “So if you observe it from the ground, you’re dominated by the brightness of the stars, which drowns the feeble emission from the nucleus.”

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