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'Malnourished' black hole breaks all the rules

And we'll need Albert Einstein's help to understand why.

Christian Cotroneo
July 15, 2019, 8:26 a.m.
Researchers used Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph to observe matter swirling deep inside the disk. (Photo: NASA, ESA, S. Bianchi, A. Laor and M. Chiaberge)

Black holes don't give up their secrets easily.

Despite decades of scientific speculation, we didn't even lay eyes on one until earlier this year when astronomers finally captured an image of Powehi — an apt Hawaiian term meaning "adorned fathomless dark creation."

And now, scientists have detected another supermassive black hole that's even more "fathomless." In fact, it breaks the few rules we expect even black holes to abide by.

The light-sucking anomaly, described in a newly published study, lies at the heart of spiral galaxy NGC 3147, about 130 million light-years from where you're currently sitting. The farther away, of course, the better. This supermassive black hole is very hungry. In fact, researchers say it's malnourished because it can't find enough material to hoover into its gaping maw.

And yet, despite lean offerings at the galactic buffet, this hungry hippo has a flat, compact disk of matter embedded in its gravitational field. The matter is whirling around 3147's black hole at a frantic pace of about a 10th of the speed of light.

An artist's rendering of the black hole in galaxy NGC 3147. (Photo: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild and L. Hustak)

As NASA explains in a press release, that kind of disk typically accompanies an engorged black hole — one that's getting plenty of nourishment from its surroundings. And yet, this black hole, despite having about 250 million times the mass of our sun, is faint and famished.

Indeed, it took a very close scan by Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph to even detect its presence.

"Without Hubble, we wouldn't have been able to see this because the black-hole region has a low luminosity," noted study co-author Marco Chiaberge of the European Space Agency in the NASA release. "The luminosities of the stars in the galaxy outshine anything in the nucleus. 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."

For answers, not surprisingly, we may have to turn, yet again, to Albert Einstein. Specifically, researchers want to test his theories of relativity on the galactic carnivore. The brilliant and much-misquoted German physicist did, after all, predict black holes existed long before we found them.

His theories of relativity, when tested on this black hole's unlikely gas disk, could give astronomers an unprecedented glimpse into the previously "fathomless" processes that occur close to a black hole.

"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," noted study co-author Stefano Bianchi of Italy's Roma Tre University in the release. "We cannot understand the data unless we include the theories of relativity."

It seems this black hole may defy most current astronomical theories. It may even defy the rules of existence itself. But we'll have to wait and see if it can defy Einstein.

For now, here's a top-down view of that very strange disk: