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Remember that a stellar black hole was once a star. Most stars have a companion star to which they are bound in a binary system. This nearby companion can be a source of material on which the black hole "feeds". Matter can be pulled off the companion in large swirling streams of hot gas that spiral toward the black hole as a fast moving incandescent whirlpool known as an accretion disk. As the matter in the disk falls closer to the black hole, it heats up and gives off radiation such as X-rays. By measuring the motion and radiation from an accretion disk, astronomers are able to infer the presence and mass of the black hole. When all of the material in the accretion disk has been consumed, the disk disappears and the black hole is virtually undetectable. Stars and planets at a safe distance from the black hole's event horizon will not be pulled in toward the black hole. They will instead orbit the black hole just as the planets orbit the Sun in our solar system. The gravitational force on stars and planets orbiting a black hole is the same as when the black hole was a normal star.


Supermassive black holes have masses comparable to those of a typical galaxy. These masses range anywhere from 10 billion to 100 billion of our Suns. Supermassive black holes tend to be in the centers of galaxies, creating what are called Active Galactic Nuclei (AGNs). An AGN emits more energy than would be expected from a typical galactic nucleus. The answer as to why this is so lies in the presence of the supermassive black hole in the galactic center. In some AGN, the massive black hole and its accretion disk somehow produce outward-moving streams of particles that are projected away perpendicular to the disk. These streams are known as jets and have the power to accelerate electrons almost to the speed of light. This produces gamma-rays that can be detected by gamma-ray observatories. The most powerful AGNs in our Universe are called quasars. We have been able to detect quasars that reside 15 billion light-years away. Scientists believe that the study of quasars will provide information about the Universe during the time of early galaxy formation.

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Imagine the Universe is a service of the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC), Dr. Alan Smale (Director), within the Astrophysics Science Division (ASD) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

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Acting Project Leader: Dr. Barbara Mattson
All material on this site has been created and updated between 1997-2012.

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