Spaceflight Now Home

Spaceflight Now +

Premium video content for our Spaceflight Now Plus subscribers.

The Discovery crew
The seven astronauts to fly the return to flight space shuttle mission hold a news conference at the Kennedy Space Center runway Jan. 7 to talk about delivery of the external tank, tile/RCC repair options and other issues. (44min 24sec file)

 Play video:
   Dial-up | Broadband

Shuttle news conference
Senior space shuttle program officials hold a news conference at Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 6 following delivery of the redesigned external fuel tank to be used on the return-to-flight launch. (51min 47sec file)

 Play video:
   Dial-up | Broadband

 Download audio:
   For iPod | MP3

External tank arrives
The external tank for space shuttle Discovery's return-to-flight launch arrives at Kennedy Space Center. The tank is offloaded from the barge and moved into the Vehicle Assembly Building. (3min 15sec file)
 Play video

Tank leaves New Orleans
The redesigned external fuel tank to be used on the return-to-flight space shuttle launch is rolled out of the Michoud Assembly Facility and place on a barge for shipment from New Orleans to Kennedy Space Center. (1min 29sec file)
 Play video

Final touches
Technicians put the final touches on the Lockheed Martin-built space shuttle external fuel tank in advance of its shipment to the Cape. (1min 44sec file)
 Play video

Mars rover cake
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe is presented with a commemorative birthday cake marking the one-year anniversary of the Mars rover Spirit's landing. (1min 21sec file)
 Play video

Rover news briefing
On the one-year anniversary of Spirit's landing on Mars, mission officials hold a status news conference on the twin exploration rovers to discuss the latest findings and future plans for the craft. (31min 20sec file)
 Play video

NASA chief speech
During celebrations marking the Mars rover milestone on Jan. 3, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe gave this speech at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (10min 20sec file)
 Play video

The Mars rover story
Storyteller Syd Lieberman presents "Twelve Wheels on Mars" that describes the adventure to build, launch and explore with the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. (54min 57sec file)
 Play video

Delta 4-Heavy launch
The Boeing Delta 4-Heavy rocket is launched from Cape Canaveral on its demonstration flight. (4min 35sec file)
 Play video

Onboard the Heavy
An onboard camera records the launch of Boeing's Delta 4-Heavy rocket from liftoff through separation of the outer boosters. (4min 40sec file)
 Play video

Become a subscriber
More video

Satellite sees matter speed-racing around a black hole
Posted: January 10, 2005

Using a 'radar-gun' technique, typical of police speed-traps, scientists have clocked three separate clumps of hot iron gas whipping around a black hole at 30,000 kilometres per second, about a tenth of the speed of light.

This animation depicts three hot chunks of matter orbiting a black hole. If placed in our Solar System, this black hole would appear like a dark abyss spread out nearly as wide as Mercury's orbit. And the three chunks (each as large as the Sun) would be as far out as Jupiter. They orbit the black hole in a lightning-quick 30 000 kilometres per second, over a tenth of the speed of light. Credits: NASA/Dana Berry, SkyWorks Digital
The observation, made with ESA's XMM-Newton observatory, marks the first time scientists could trace individual blobs of shredded matter on a complete journey around a black hole. This provides a crucial measurement that has long been missing from black hole studies: an orbital period. Knowing this, scientists can measure black hole mass and other characteristics that have long eluded them.

Dr Jane Turner (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, USA and University of Maryland Baltimore County, USA) presents this result today at a press conference at the American Astronomical Society in San Diego together with Dr Lance Miller (University of Oxford, United Kingdom).

"For years we have seen only the general commotion caused by massive black holes, that is, a terrific outpouring of light," said Turner. "We could not track the specifics. Now, with XMM-Newton, we can filter through all that light and find patterns that reveal information about black holes never seen before in such clarity."

Miller noted that if this black hole were placed in our Solar System, it would appear like a dark abyss spread out nearly as wide as Mercury's orbit. And the three clumps of matter detected would be as far out as Jupiter. They orbit the black hole in a lightning-quick 27 hours (compared to the 12 years it takes Jupiter to orbit the Sun).

Black holes are regions in space in which gravity prevents all matter and light from escaping. What scientists see is not the black hole itself but rather the light emitted close to it as matter falls towards the black hole and heats to extremely high temperatures.

Turner's team observed a well-known galaxy named Markarian 766, located about 170 million light years away in the constellation Coma Berenices (Bernice's Hair). The black hole in Markarian 766 is relatively small although highly active. Its mass is a few million times that of the Sun; other central black hole systems are over 100 million solar masses. Matter funnels into this black hole like water swirling down a drain, forming what scientists call an accretion disc. Flares erupt on this disc most likely when magnetic field lines emanating from the central black hole interact with regions on the disc.

To measure the speed of the flares and the black hole mass, scientists used a technique that involves measuring the Doppler shift and resembles that used by the police to catch speeding motorists. As an object moves towards us, the frequency or energy of its light rises. Conversely, the energy falls as the object moves away. This is the 'Doppler effect' and a similar phenomenon happens with the changing pitch of a police siren. If it is approaching, the frequency of the sound is higher, but if it is receding the frequency is lower.

"We think we are viewing the accretion disc at a slightly tilted angle, so we see the light from each of these flares rise and fall in energy as they orbit the black hole," Miller said. By studying the pattern with which the light from the clumps rises and falls in energy, scientists could also determine the mass of the black hole and the viewing angle of the accretion disc. With a known mass and orbital period, Turner and her team could determine the speed of the clumps using relatively simple Newtonian physics.

Two factors made the measurement possible. One is that XMM-Newton captured particularly persistent flares during a long observation, lasting nearly 27 hours. Equally crucial is the unprecedented light collecting power of XMM-Newton, which allowed scientists to look at how energy from the clumps changed over time.

Turner said this observation confirms a preliminary XMM-Newton result, announced in September 2004 by a European team led by Dr Kazushi Iwasawa of the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, United Kingdom, that something as detailed as an orbital period could be detected with the current generation of X-ray observatories. The combination of results indicates that scientists, given long observation times, are now able to make careful black hole measurements and even test general relativity in the domain of extreme gravity.