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Black Holes That Burp

Some black holes in outer space may actually spit out as much material as they suck in.

It wouldn’t be very pleasant to go near a black hole. Armed with an enormous amount of gravitational pull, the incredibly tiny but supermassive object would swallow you alive and stretch you into a piece of spaghetti in the process. Black holes are black because they engulf everything in sight, including light.

Now, scientists say, it looks like some black holes actually spit out as much material as they suck in. Black-hole burps may even fill outer space with many of the building blocks of life.

Illustration of a massive black hole flanked by swirling gas (green).

Illustration of a massive black hole flanked by swirling gas (green).

Chandra/M. Weiss

The new observations come with the help of NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton satellite. George Chartas of Pennsylvania State University and his colleagues used the spacecraft to look at two quasars—extremely bright and distant beams of high-energy light powered by rotating black holes.

By looking at magnified light from the two quasars, Chartas and his team were able to detect for the first time high-energy winds coming out of black holes.

The winds travel at 20 to 40 percent of the speed of light (which is still really, really fast). And they spit out billions of suns worth of gas, including oxygen, carbon, and iron—important elements necessary for life. So, even though black holes make up only a tiny percentage of a galaxy’s mass, they may play an important role in galaxy evolution.

Still, with all the sucking, spitting, and burping they do, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to try to look inside a black hole, even if you could get close enough!—E. Sohn

Going Deeper:

Cowen, Ron. 2003. Cosmic blowout: Black holes spew as much as they consume. Science News 163(April 5):214. Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/20030405/fob7.asp .

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