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Using the XMM-Newton X-ray space telescope astronomers have detected matter falling into the central supermassive black hole at 30% of the speed of light in a galaxy a billion light years away.
Using data from XMM-Newton, Prof. Pounds and his collaborators looked at X-ray spectra (where X-rays are dispersed by wavelength) from the galaxy PG211+143. This object lies more than one billion light years away in the direction of the constellation Coma Berenices, and is a Seyfert galaxy, characterised by a very bright AGN [active galactic nucleus] resulting from the presence of the massive black hole at its nucleus.
The researchers found the spectra to be strongly red-shifted, showing the observed matter to be falling into the black hole at the enormous speed of 30 per cent of the speed of light, or around 100,000 kilometres per second. The gas has almost no rotation around the hole, and is detected extremely close to it in astronomical terms, at a distance of only 20 times the hole’s size (its event horizon, the boundary of the region where escape is no longer possible).
Astronomers have theorized for several decades that the reason Seyfert galaxies have such active nuclei is exactly because matter is falling into the central black hole. This observation appears to confirm that theory.