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Recent Podcast
A Tour of GSN 069
A Tour of GSN 069
Astronomers found X-ray bursts repeating about every nine hours coming from the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy GSN 069. (2019-09-11)


A Tour of Lensed Quasars

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Narrator (April Jubett, CXC): Like whirlpools in the ocean, spinning black holes in space create a swirling torrent around them. However, black holes do not create eddies of wind or water. Rather, they generate disks of gas and dust heated to hundreds of millions of degrees that glow in X-ray light.

Using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and chance alignments across billions of light years, astronomers have deployed a new technique to measure the spin of five supermassive black holes. The matter in one of these cosmic vortices is swirling around its black hole at greater than about 70% of the speed of light.

The astronomers took advantage of a natural phenomenon called a gravitational lens. With just the right alignment, the bending of space-time by a massive object, such as a large galaxy, can magnify and produce multiple images of a distant object, as predicted by Einstein.

In this latest research, astronomers used Chandra and gravitational lensing to study six quasars, each consisting of a supermassive black hole rapidly consuming matter from a surrounding accretion disk. Gravitational lensing of the light from each of these quasars by an intervening galaxy has created multiple images of each quasar.

The key advance made by researchers in this study was that they took advantage of "microlensing," where individual stars in the intervening, lensing galaxy provided additional magnification of the light from the quasar. A higher magnification means a smaller region is producing the X-ray emission.

How can these black holes spin so quickly? The researchers think that these supermassive black holes likely grew by accumulating most of their material over billions of years from an accretion disk spinning with a similar orientation and direction of spin, rather than from random directions. Like a merry-go-round that keeps getting pushed in the same direction, the black holes kept picking up speed. This information helps astronomers learn more about how these supermassive black holes grew and evolved in the early Universe.

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