A lenticular galaxy located about 32 million light years from Earth.
NASA / CXC / UA / K.Wong / ESO / VLT
This composite image contains X-rays from Chandra (blue) and optical data from the VLT (gold) of the galaxy NGC 3115. Using the Chandra data, the flow of hot gas toward the supermassive black hole in the center of this galaxy has been imaged. This is the first time that clear evidence for such a flow has been observed in any black hole.
updated 7/29/2011 2:11:41 PM ET 2011-07-29T18:11:41

A supermassive black hole devouring hot gas in its vicinity has been seen clearly for the first time in a new X-ray view, according to a recent study.

Black holes consume material around them and grow by using their intense gravity to pull in surrounding gases. This flow of hot gas, as it is being sucked toward the black hole, has been clearly seen for the first time in X-ray wavelengths, helping astronomers to better understand how black holes gobble their surroundings and how matter behaves in this extreme environment.

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory examined the black hole at the center of a large galaxy, called NGC 3115, which is located about 32 million light-years away from Earth. A large amount of previous data has shown material falling toward and onto black holes, but until now, none displayed such a clear signature of hot gas, researchers said.

"It's exciting to find such clear evidence for gas in the grip of a massive black hole," Ka-Wah Wong of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, said in a statement. "Chandra's resolving power provides a unique opportunity to understand more about how black holes capture material by studying this nearby object."

Wong is the lead author of the new study of the black hole that was published in the July 20 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The flow of gas
By capturing images of the hot gas at different distances from NGC 3115's supermassive black hole, astronomers were able to detect a critical threshold where the motion of gas first becomes dominated by the black hole's gravity and begins falling inward. This distance point from the black hole is known as the "Bondi radius," researchers said.

As gas flows toward a black hole, it becomes squeezed, making it hotter and brighter, something that was confirmed by the X-ray observations. The astronomers found that the temperature of the gas begins to rise at a distance of about 700 light-years from NGC 3115's black hole, indicating the location of the Bondi radius.

The new Chandra image also supports previous optical observations that suggest that NGC 3115's black hole has a mass of about 2 billion times that of the sun, making it the closest black hole of such an enormous size to Earth.

According to the researchers, Chandra's observations show that the gas close to the black hole is denser than gas further out, as was predicted. Combining the observed properties of the gas and their own theoretical assumptions, the astronomers estimate that each year, gas weighing about 2 percent of the mass of the sun is being sucked across the Bondi radius toward the black hole.

Strangely dim
But, there are still some mysteries yet to be uncovered. Making certain assumptions about how much energy from the gas changes into radiation, the research team would expect to find something that is more than a million times brighter when observed in X-ray wavelengths than what is seen in NGC 3115.

"A leading mystery in astrophysics is how the area around massive black holes can stay so dim, when there's so much fuel available to light up," said the study's co-author Jimmy Irwin, also of the University of Alabama. "This black hole is a poster child for this problem."

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Two possible explanations could explain this discrepancy, researchers said. The first situation could be that much less material actually falls onto the black hole than flows within the Bondi radius. Another possibility is that the conversion of energy into radiation is much less efficient than was accounted for in the astronomers' assumptions.

Different models describing the flow of material toward the black hole make different predictions for how quickly the density of the gas is seen to rise as it approaches the black hole. Future observations should allow astronomers to narrow down and make more precise determinations using these models.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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