Black hole found in feeding frenzy

A super-powerful black hole at the centre of a distant galaxy is gobbling up the equivalent of two planet Earths a day.

The cosmic cannibal’s voracious appetite was discovered by a team led by UK space scientist Professor Andy Fabian, of Cambridge.

Using a space telescope, they got their closest ever look at the chomping monster which is thought to resemble one at the heart of our own Milky Way.

Called a supermassive black hole, it weighs more than a billion stars and its gravitational pull is so strong that light cannot escape. This makes the black hole invisible but astronomers can tell it is there by the swirl of stars and gas nearby as it devours them in a feeding frenzy.

Professor Fabian’s report on the black hole in a galaxy known as 1H0707-495 is published this week in the science journal Nature. Its activity was revealed by a study of X-rays from the hungry black hole using the European Space Agency’s orbiting XMM-Newton observatory.

The black hole’s constant chomping – a process called accretion – show that it is a messy eater. But the scientists are now examing the remains left around it by cosmic forces.

“Accretion is a very messy process because of the magnetic fields that are involved,” said Professor Fabian. But he added: “We can now start to map out the region immediately around the black hole.”

XMM-Newton has previously carried out the biggest ever survey of the universe in the X-ray band of the spectrum.

Picture: An impression of a supermassive black hole by ESA artist C. Carreau.

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