scorecardSupermassive black hole bigger than 7 billion Suns is spinning so fast that it's close to breaking the laws of physics
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Supermassive black hole bigger than 7 billion Suns is spinning so fast that it's close to breaking the laws of physics

Supermassive black hole bigger than 7 billion Suns is spinning so fast that it's close to breaking the laws of physics
LifeScience3 min read

  • Messier 87, star of the first image of the black hole, is spinning between 2.4 to 6.3 times faster than the speed of light.
  • According to the laws of physics, the speed of light is the universal speed limit.
  • The study presented at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) calls it ‘superluminal motion’.
The Chandra X-ray Observatory has spotted a black hole spinning so far that it’s close to breaking the laws of physics. Messier 87 (M87), recently named Powehi, is a black hole 54 million light-years from Earth - yet it’s one of the most famous phenomenons on the planet.

Its claim to fame came last year when the Event Horizon Telescope was able to capture it in the first image of the black hole.


"It’s like the Event Horizon Telescope is giving a close-up view of a rocket launcher and Chandra is showing us the rockets in flight," said Paul Nulsen, co-author of the study presented at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting on Monday.

Going faster than the speed of light
Even before its famous picture, M87 was already well known in the scientific community for the powerful jet of material being ejected from its core. Astronomers agreed that the black hole was spinning really fast, but obviously not as faster than the speed of light — the universal speed limit.


Yet, Chandra’s X-ray data showed that M87 was spinning between 2.4 to 6.3 times faster.

"One of the unbreakable laws of physics is that nothing can move faster than the speed of light," said Brad Snios, another co-author of the study.

So, how did M87 break the laws of physics?
The answer is simple. It didn’t. The supermassive black hole with 7 billion times the mass of our Sun isn’t going faster than the speed of light, it only looks like it.


"We haven’t broken physics, but we have found an example of an amazing phenomenon called superluminal motion," Snios explained.

Superluminal motion is when "objects travel close to the speed of light along a direction that is close to our line of sight." With M87, the black hole pointing nearly directly at us. And, it’s still going at 99% of the speed of light. The combination managed to fool the readings on Chandra’s cosmic speed gun.


99% speed of light is still pretty fast
New Horizons, the planet’s fastest rocket ship, is capable of reaching 58,000 kilometres per hour (kph). The fastest asteroid to approach Earth this year, 2020 AQ1, will be travelling at 27 kilometres per second (kps).

Speed of light, on the other hand, is 299,792 kps. That’s over 11,000 times the speed of an asteroid and millions of times faster than any object on Earth.


"Our work gives the strongest evidence yet that particles in M87*’s jet are actually travelling at close to the cosmic speed limit," said Snios.

This discovery paves the road for Chandra to measure the speeds of those celestial phenomenons in the universe. Where optical and radio observations have failed, Chandra’s X-ray data succeeded.

See also:
Supermassive black hole bigger than 7 billion Suns is spinning so fast that it's close to breaking the laws of physics

NASA's planet-hunter uncovers its first world with two stars 1,300 light-years away

A star that's slowly been getting brighter over the past decades will explode in 2083

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