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This computer-generated image shows an artist's conception of a black hole. The event horizon is depicted as the black sphere in the middle of the picture. The surrounding disk of gas, represented by white and blue rings, whirls around the black hole at different speeds, with the material closest to the black hole approaching the speed of light.
Click on image for full size
Courtesy of NASA

Black Holes Out for a Spin
News story originally written on May 14, 2001

Everyone is awed by black holes. How could there be a thing that devours all light and matter around it...so that matter can never escape?!?

A new discovery has been made about black holes - some of them spin! Dr. Tod Strohmayer, a scientist at NASA, used data from NASA's Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer to show that at least some black holes spin. "Almost every kind of object in space spins, such as planets, stars, and galaxies," said Strohmayer. "With black holes, it's much harder to directly see that they are spinning, because they don't have a solid surface that you can watch spin around. We can, however, see the light emitted from matter plunging into the black hole. The matter whips frantically around the black hole before it is lost forever."

The specific black hole that Strohmayer was studying was a stellar black hole. A stellar black hole is one formed from a star. When stars at least 10 times the mass of the Sun cannot support themselves any longer, the stars can explode off their outer shell in a supernova explosion. There is still a lot of material left that doesn't get thrown off into space. This material collapses into a single point of infinite density. This single point is the beginning of a stellar black hole. Because the star that formed the black hole would have been spinning, it is thought that the spin of a black hole is caused by the angular momentum of the star that formed it.

Last modified May 11, 2001 by Jennifer Bergman.

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