January 9, 2006

One-way trip into black hole takes 200,000 years

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The one-way journey from the heart
of a galaxy into the oblivion of a black hole probably takes
about 200,000 years, astronomers said on Monday.

By tracking the death spiral of cosmic gas at the center of
a galaxy called NGC1097, scientists figured that material
moving at 110,000 miles an hour would still take eons to cross
into a black hole.

Black holes are drains in space that have gravitational
pull so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape. Huge
ones are believed to lurk at the centers of many galaxies
including the Milky Way, which contains the sun.

"It would take 200,000 years for gas to travel the last leg
of its one-way journey," Kambiz Fathi of Rochester Institute of
Technology told reporters at a meeting of the American
Astronomical Society.

No one has ever seen a black hole, but astronomers study
the way matter and energy behave around them.

An international team led by Fathi studied the black hole
at the middle of NGC1097, a behemoth with 100 million times the
mass of the sun.

The team managed to observe behavior 10 times closer to the
black hole than ever before, Fathi said, seeing clouds of
material within 10 light-years of the galactic core, where the
black hole is believed to reside.

Previous research has detected gas clouds from 100 to 1,000
light-years from the galaxy's heart.

A light-year is about 6 trillion miles, the distance light
travels in a year. The galaxy is about 47 million light-years
away from Earth, relatively close in cosmic terms.