Scientists Have Spotted a Black Hole Spewing 125 Million Mile an Hour Winds

March 24, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Artist's illustration of turbulent winds of gas swirling around a black hole.
Photo credit: NASA, and M. Weiss (Chandra X -ray Center)

And there may be even faster space winds out there!

New research, led by astrophysicists at York University, Canada, have revealed the fastest winds ever seen, called quasar winds, at ultraviolet wavelengths near a supermassive black hole.

“We're talking wind speeds of 20 per cent the speed of light, which is more than 200 million kilometres [125 million miles] an hour. That's equivalent to a category 77 hurricane,” Jesse Rogerson, who led the research as part of his PhD thesis in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at York U, said in a press release. “And we have reason to believe that there are quasar winds that are even faster.”

Quasar winds are not a new discovery — astronomers have known about their existence since the late 1960s. In fact, one in four quasars have these winds.

SEE ALSO: Biggest Black Hole Ever Observed Was Captured by Hubble

Quasars are the discs of hot gas that form around supermassive black holes at the center of massive galaxies. To put into perspective how massive quasars are, picture this: They are bigger than Earth’s orbit around the sun and hotter than the surface of the sun, generating enough light to be seen across the observable universe. Enormous!

“Black holes can have a mass that is billions of times larger than the sun, mostly because they are messy eaters in a way, capturing any material that ventures too close,” York University Associate Professor Patrick Hall, who is Rogerson's supervisor, said in the press release. “But as matter spirals toward a black hole, some of it is blown away by the heat and light of the quasar. These are the winds that we are detecting.”

Rogerson and his team used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to identify new outflows from quasars. After identifying 300 examples, they selected just 100 for further exploration, and began collecting data with the Gemini Observatory’s twin telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, in which Canada has a major share.

Along with the discovery of the ultrafast wind, the team also spotted a slower moving wind from the same quasar. “We not only confirmed this fastest-ever ultraviolet wind, but also discovered a new wind in the same quasar moving more slowly, at only 140 million kilometres [87 million miles] an hour,” said Hall in the press release. “We plan to keep watching this quasar to see what happens next.”

Their results were published in the print edition of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society under the title, “Multi-epoch observations of extremely high-velocity emergent broad absorption.”

The aim of the research is to better outstand the different quasars outflows and why they happen because they play a major role in the formation of galaxies.

“Quasar winds play an important role in galaxy formation,” said Rogerson in the press release. “When galaxies form, these winds fling material outwards and deter the creation of stars. If such winds didn't exist or were less powerful, we would see far more stars in big galaxies than we actually do.”

Piece by piece, we are slowly unveiling the mysteries of black holes in the universe.

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