Using wobbling stellar material, astronomers measure the spin of a supermassive black hole for the first time | Science & Technology

Astronomers at MIT, NASA, and elsewhere have a new way to measure how fast a black hole spins, by using the wobbly aftermath from its stellar feasting.

The method takes advantage of a black hole tidal disruption event — a blazingly bright moment when a black hole exerts tides on a passing star and rips it to shreds. As the star is disrupted by the black hole’s immense tidal forces, half of the star is blown away, while the other half is flung around the black hole, generating an intensely hot accretion disk of rotating stellar material.

The MIT-led team has shown that the wobble of the newly created accretion disk is key to working out the central black hole’s inherent spin.

In a study appearing in Nature, the astronomers report that they have measured the spin of a nearby supermassive black hole by tracking the pattern of X-ray flashes that the black hole produced immediately following a tidal disruption event. The team followed the flashes over several months and determined that they were likely a signal of a bright-hot accretion disk that wobbled back and forth as it was pushed and pulled by the black hole’s own spin.

By tracking how the disk’s wobble changed over time, the scientists could work out how much the disk was being affected by the black hole’s spin, and in turn, how fast the black hole itself was spinning. Their analysis showed that the black hole was spinning at less than 25 percent the speed of light — relatively slow, as black holes go.

The study’s lead author, MIT Research Scientist Dheeraj “DJ” Pasham, says the new method could be used to gauge the spins of hundreds of black holes in the local universe in the coming years. If scientists can survey the spins of many nearby black holes, they can start to understand how the gravitational giants evolved over the history of the universe.

“By studying several systems in the coming years with this method, astronomers can estimate the overall distribution of black hole spins and understand the…

Source www.sciencedaily.com

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