May 27, 2009

Space observatory studies giant black hole

The European Space Agency says data from its XMM-Newton space observatory has allowed astronomers to closely study a supermassive black hole.

The black hole is located at the core of a distant active galaxy known as 1H0707-495. It was observed during four 48-hour-long orbits of XMM-Newton around Earth, starting in January 2008.

We can now start to map out the region immediately around the black hole, said Andrew Fabian of the University of Cambridge, who led the observations and analysis.

Researchers said X-rays are produced as matter swirls into a supermassive black hole and XMM-Newton detected two bright features of iron emission in the reflected X-rays that had never been seen together in an active galaxy. Those bright features are known as the iron L and K lines, and they can be so bright only if there is a high abundance of iron, the ESA said. Seeing both in this galaxy suggests the core is much richer in iron than the rest of the galaxy, researchers said.

The resulting data allowed the scientists to estimate the mass of the black hole at about 3 million to 5 million solar masses. The observations also revealed the black hole is spinning very rapidly and eating the equivalent of two Earths per hour.

The research is to appear in the journal Nature.