Using NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton telescope, astronomers have seen the back of a black hole for the first time.
Albert Einstein hypothesised that the gravitational pull of black holes was so strong they could bend light right around them. Almost a century later, many have believed this was the case, and it has now been proved by scientists.
Though it has been difficult to establish this proof, as black holes trap light, Stanford University’s Dr Wilkins and his team made a remarkable discovery while investigating a supermassive black hole called I Zwicky 1, 800 million light-years away from Earth.
The study, published in the academic journal Nature, analysed X-ray ‘echoes’ surrounding a black hole. These X-ray light echoes come from a surrounding accretion disk, where gas and dust spiral towards oblivion and are used to map the black hole’s inner structure.
X-rays are produced when the magnetic field gets ‘tied up’ and starts ‘snapping close to the black hole‘, it then ‘heats everything around it and produces these high energy electrons’.
The team noticed fainter X-rays with different wavelengths bouncing off the accretion disk from behind the black hole. This means that the rays evaded the magnetic field and then were sucked back in. In some cases, these escaped X-rays can be seen bending because of the gravitational pull of the black hole, which allowed the team to see the back of it for the first time.
X-ray reverberations from the accretion disk were ‘modelled using general relativistic ray-tracing simulations’.
Speaking about the importance of the discovery, Michael Cowley, an astrophysicist at the Queensland University of Technology, told ABC News:
Their result provides further support for Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which continues to hold up well after more than 100 years since publication.
Observations such as these provide us more insight into the nature of supermassive black holes, along with how they can generate such awesome amounts of power.
Tamara Davis, an astrophysicist at the University of Queensland also discussed the significance of the findings, adding:
It is very impressive that they have managed to interpret the flares they’ve seen as light that has lapped the black hole.
The exciting thing about this observation is that it is light bent around a black hole. It tells us what the material around the black hole is doing, at a resolution we couldn’t ever hope to achieve with conventional telescopes.
This discovery proves that Einstein’s theory of relativity was correct, and also provides new insight into black holes.
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