An international group of astronomers announced over the weekend that they have directly observed a disk of matter being pulled into a huge black hole, the first image of its kind.
Using the Hubble Space Telescope and a technique known as gravitational lensing to magnify the image, astronomers captured the accretion disc — the brightly glowing disc of matter, or quasar around a supermassive black hole at the center of a nearby galaxy.
Astronomers associated with the project said the image may allow for further research on how black holes are formed and their impact on the cosmos.
“This result is very relevant because it implies we are now able to obtain observational data on the structure of these systems, rather than relying on theory alone,” astronomers said in a statement released Saturday. “Quasars’ physical properties are not yet well understood. This new ability to obtain observational measurements is therefore opening a new window to help understand the nature of these objects.”
The team of astronomers say they were able to capture the image of the distant disk, which is approximately 18.5 billion light-years away, using a unique technique. Using gravitational lensing, astronomers were able to directly determine the temperatures at different parts of the quasar, and determine measurements of its size. As the stars in the intervening galaxy move in front of the quasar, gravitational effects distort and amplify its light, allowing scientists to estimate key characteristics of a number of objects throughout the universe. Using that measurement, the team of astronomers were then able to discern the shape and the temperatures of the massive black hole.
Using the image, astronomers and scientists say they will attempt to focus on how quasars and black holes interact, and what conditions were like in the universe billions of years ago.
While black holes themselves are invisible, the forces they unleash cause some of the brightest phenomena in the Universe. Quasars — short for quasi-stellar objects — are glowing discs of matter that orbit supermassive black holes, heating up and emitting extremely bright radiation as they do so.
The international team was lead by Jose Munoz at the University of Valencia.