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Black holes eat faster than previously expected, says new study

A new study sheds light on the eating habits of supermassive black holes and could help better understand quasars

New high-resolution simulations show that the violent whirlpool of gas that encircles a supermassive black hole breaks apart into inner and outer rings. Image.(A. Tchekhovskoy and Nick Kaaz)

By Team Lounge

LAST PUBLISHED 22.09.2023  |  02:15 PM IST

There is always a lot of curiosity about black holes. The Milky Way galaxy houses about 100 million black holes along with a supermassive one at the centre, according to Nasa. 

From discovering new ones to understanding them better, scientists are constantly exploring these fascinating objects. Now, a new study sheds light on the eating habits of supermassive black holes.

According to Nasa, a black hole is a place in space where gravity pulls so much that even light can not get out. Previously, researchers believed that black holes eat slowly. However, a new study, by researchers from Northwestern University, found that they eat much faster than conventional understanding suggests, a press statement by the university elaborates. The findings were published recently in The Astrophysical Journal.

Also read: James Webb Space Telescope spots most distant black hole yet

The new high-resolution 3D simulations show that spinning black holes “twist up the surrounding space-time, ultimately ripping apart the violent whirlpool of gas (or accretion disk) that encircles and feeds them," the statement explains. This causes the disk to tear into inner and outer subtasks. These holes first eat the inner ring and then the remains from the outer sub-disk fall inward to refill the gap left behind and the process repeats.

The cycle continuously repeats, with each lasting a few months, which is surprisingly a fast timeline compared to the hundreds of years that researchers previously proposed. The new finding could help provide insight into the dramatic behaviour other fascinating objects in space such as quasars, resulting from black holes eating gas from their accretion disks, which abruptly flare up and vanish without explanation, the statement adds. According to Nasa, accretion disks are the main light source from a black hole.

The researchers’ simulation, which is one of the highest-resolution simulations of accretion disks to date, shows that the regions around the black hole are more turbulent places than previously thought, the statement explains. According to the new study, the tearing region — where the inner and outer sub-disks disconnect — is where the eating process begins.

The statement further elaborates that the eat-refill-eat could explain quasars, which are extremely bright objects that emit 1,000 times more energy than the entire Milky Way’s 200 billion to 400 billion stars. They appear to turn on and off over the duration of months, which is a significantly small amount of time for a typical quasar.

“We basically see it go away entirely. The system stops being bright. Then, it brightens again and the process repeats. Conventional theory doesn’t have any way to explain why it disappears in the first place, and it doesn’t explain how it refills so quickly," lead author Nick Kaaz said in the statement.

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The new simulations could explain quasars and answer more questions about black holes such as how gas gets into a black hole to feed it.

In related news, earlier this month, a University of Kansas survey using the James Webb Space Telescope, showed that supermassive black holes are rapidly increasing in size and they are fewer than many astrophysicists had assumed previously, according to a SciTechDaily report. The researchers also said they are absorbing limited material and might not be significantly impacting their host galaxies.

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