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Close-up Look at Black Hole Reveals Feeding Frenzy

Astronomersare getting a close-up look at a cosmic eating machine: a spinning black holethat devours the mass equivalent of two Earths per hour, verging on the limitof its feeding ability.

Supermassiveblack holes can weigh as much as a billionsuns or more and are thought to reside at the centers of most, if not all,large galaxies. Their gravity is so powerful it traps even light, making blackholes invisible. Their presence is inferred by watching the motions ofstars and gas around them, along with the radiation that's generated in theirfrenzied vicinities.

Thebehemoth of interest in the new close-up study, which will be published in theMay 28 issue of the journal Nature, lies at the center of a distantactive galaxy known as 1H0707-495. Using data from the European Space Agency's XMM-Newtonobservatory, astronomers analyzed X-rays emitted during the black hole's feedingfrenzy.

As matterswirls in toward a black hole, gravity makes it travel at significant fractionsof light-speed. That generates X-rays and other radiation that can giveastronomers information about the spin of the black hole and its size, amongother details.

In thiscase, the astronomers say they are tracking matter that's within twice theradius of the black hole itself.

Specifically,the XMM-Newton detections suggested the galaxy's core is much richer in ironthan the rest of the galaxy. In addition, there was a time lag of 30 secondsbetween changes in the X-ray light observed directly and those seen in itsreflection from the disk. From this delay, the astronomers estimate the blackhole weighs about 3 million to 5 million solar masses ? modest by supermassiveblack hole standards.

The team willcontinue to track the galaxy and map out the accretingprocess of this supermassive black hole. Far from being a steady process, likemuddy water slipping down a plughole, a feeding black hole is a messy eater.

"Accretionis a very messy process because of the magnetic fields that are involved,"said study scientist Andrew Fabian of the University of Cambridge.

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