A supermassive black hole at the center of a distant galaxy was recently spotted sucking in matter at a speed that would probably get you pulled over on most highways:
In a paper published September 3 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, a team of researchers reported, for the first time, spotting a clump of matter falling directly into a distant black hole at nearly one-third the speed of light.
The observations, which come from the European Space Agency’s orbiting XMM-Newton X-ray observatory, are of the 40 million-solar-mass supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy PG211+143, about one billion light-years away. PG211+143 is a Seyfert galaxy, meaning it hosts a bright, actively feeding black hole at its center pulling in gas and dust from its surroundings. By spreading the X-ray light received from that material out by wavelength, researchers led by Ken Pounds of the University of Leicester clocked a clump of matter falling into the black hole at 30 percent the speed of light — about 56,000 miles per second (90,000 kilometers per second). “We were able to follow an Earth-sized clump of matter for about a day, as it was pulled towards the black hole, accelerating to a third of the velocity of light before being swallowed up by the hole,” said Pounds in a recent press release.
Sure, 56,000 miles per second sounds fast… but you haven’t really seen fast until you’ve seen planet-sized blobs of plasma hurled from a “blazar” galaxy at more than 99% the speed of light.
Even more mind-crushing is the speed achieved by the “Oh-My-God particle,” a cosmic ray particle detected above Utah in 1991. It was traveling at 99.99999999999999999999951% the speed of light, which caused considerable surprise to the astrophysicists observing it. Hence the name.