Supermassive Black Hole’s Dizzying Spin Is Half The Speed Of Light

The spin rate of the most distant supermassive black hole has been measured directly, and wow, is it fast. X-ray observations of  RX J1131-1231 (RX J1131 for short) show it is whizzing around at almost half the speed of light. Through X-rays, the astronomers were able to peer at the rate of debris fall into the singularity, yielding the speed measurement.

“We estimate that the X-rays are coming from a region in the disk located only about three times the radius of the event horizon — the point of no return for infalling matter,” stated Jon Miller, an an associate professor of astronomy at the University of Michigan and a co-author on the paper. “The black hole must be spinning extremely rapidly to allow a disk to survive at such a small radius.”

Supermassive black holes are embedded in the heart of most galaxies, and are millions or even billions of times for massive than the Sun. This makes the spin speed astonishingly fast, but also gives astronomers clues about how the host galaxy evolved.

“The growth history of a supermassive black hole is encoded in its spin, so studies of spin versus time can allow us study the co-evolution of black holes and their host galaxies,” stated Mark Reynolds, an assistant research scientist in astronomy at University of Michigan, another co-author on the study.

An artist's conception of jets protruding from a quasar. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
An artist’s conception of jets protruding from a quasar. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

RX J1131 is six billion light-years away from Earth and classified as a quasar, a type of object that occurs when a lot of matter plunges into a supermassive black hole.

“Under normal circumstances, this faraway quasar would be too faint to study. But the researchers were able to take advantage of a sort of natural telescope effect known as gravitational lensing and a lucky alignment of the quasar and a giant elliptical galaxy to get a closer view,” the University of Michigan stated.

“Gravitational lensing, first predicted by Einstein, occurs when the gravity of massive objects acts as a lens to bend, distort and magnify the light from more distant objects as it passes.”

In this case, the researchers used the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton Telescope to capture the X-ray images.

The research was led Rubens Reis, a postdoctoral research fellow in astronomy the University of Michigan. The paper is published today (March 5) in Nature.

For further reading, see the Chandra website and the associated NASA press release.

Source: University of Michigan

‘Green Peas’ Offer Tiny Clues to Early Universe

Today, we see an unobstructed view of the cosmos in all directions. But, a time existed near the Big Bang when the space between galaxies was an opaque fog where nothing could be seen. And according to two University of Michigan researchers, rare Green Pea galaxies, discovered in 2007, could offer clues into a pivotal step, called reionization, in the Universe’s evolution when space became transparent.

Reionization occurred just a few million years after the Big Bang. During this time, the first stars were beginning to blaze forth and galaxies. Astronomers believe these massive stars blasted the early universe with high-energy ultraviolet light. The UV light interacted with the neutral hydrogen gas it met, scraping off electrons and leaving behind a plasma of negatively charged electrons and positively charged hydrogen ions.

“We think this is what happened but when we looked at galaxies nearby, the high-energy radiation doesn’t appear to make it out. There’s been a push to find some galaxies that show signs of radiation escaping,” Anne Jaskot, a doctoral student in astronomy, says in a press release.

In findings released in the current edition of the Astrophysical Journal, Jaskot and Sally Oey, an associate professor of astronomy, the astronomers focused on six of the most intensely star-forming Green Pea galaxies between one billion and five billion light-years from Earth. The galaxies are compact and closely resemble early galaxies. The objects are thought to be a type of Luminous Blue Compact Galaxy, a type of starburst galaxy where stars are forming at prodigious rates. They were discovered in 2007 by volunteers with the citizen science project Galaxy Zoo. Named “peas” because of their fuzzy green appearance, the galaxies are very small. Scientists estimate that they are no larger than about 16,000 light-years across making them about the size of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a irregular galaxy near our Milky Way Galaxy.

Using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, Jaskot and Oey studied the emission lines from the galaxies to determine how much light was absorbed. Emission lines tell astronomers not only what elements are present in the stars but also much about the intervening space. By studying this interaction, the researchers determined that the galaxies produced more radiation than observed, meaning some must have escaped.

“An analogy might be if you have a tablecloth and you spill something on it. If you see the cloth has been stained all the way to the edges, there’s a good chance it also spilled onto the floor,” Jaskot said. “We’re looking at the gas like the tablecloth and seeing how much light it has absorbed. It has absorbed a lot of light. We’re seeing that the galaxy is saturated with it and there’s probably some extra that spilled off the edges.”

The Moon’s Water Comes From the Sun

An image of water-filled debris ejected from Cabeus crater about 20 seconds after the 2009 LCROSS impact. Courtesy of Science/AAAS.

Comets? Asteroids? The Earth? The origins of water now known to exist within the Moon’s soil — thanks to recent observations by various lunar satellites and the impact of the LCROSS mission’s Centaur rocket in 2009 — has been an ongoing puzzle for scientists. Now, new research supports that the source of at least some of the Moon’s water is the Sun, with the answer blowing in the solar wind.


Spectroscopy research conducted on Apollo samples by a team from the University of Tennessee, University of Michigan and Caltech has revealed “significant amounts” of hydroxyl within microscopic glass particles found inside lunar soil, the results of micrometeorite impacts.

According to the research team, the hydroxyl “water” within the lunar glass was likely created by interactions with protons and hydrogen ions from the solar wind.

“We found that the ‘water’ component, the hydroxyl, in the lunar regolith is mostly from solar wind implantation of protons, which locally combined with oxygen to form hydroxyls that moved into the interior of glasses by impact melting,” said Youxue Zhang, Professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Michigan.

Hydroxyl is the pairing of a single oxygen atom to a single hydrogen atom (OH). Each molecule of water contains two hydroxyl groups.

Although such glass particles are widespread on the surface of the Moon — the researchers studied samples returned from Apollo 11, Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 missions — the water in hydroxyl form is not something that could be easily used by future lunar explorers. Still, the findings suggest that solar wind-derived hydroxyl may also exist on the surface of other airless worlds, like Mercury, Vesta or Eros… especially within permanently-shadowed craters and depressions.

“These planetary bodies have very different environments, but all have the potential to produce water,” said Yang Liu, University of Tennessee scientist and lead author of the team’s paper.

The discovery of hydroxyl within lunar glasses presents an “unanticipated, abundant reservoir” of water on the Moon, and possibly throughout the entire Solar System.

The study was published online Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Source: University of Michigan news release.

Inset image: a grain of lunar agglutinate glass from samples returned by Apollo astronauts (Yang Liu)