Like a bat out of Hell, winds coming from this black hole are equivalent to a category 77 hurricane. That’s more than 200 million kilometers per hour!

By Lola Gayle, Editor-at-large

The fastest winds ever seen — at least in ultraviolet wavelengths — have been discovered near a supermassive black hole, according to astrophysicists at York University and Penn State.

“This new ultrafast wind surprised us when it appeared at ultraviolet wavelengths, indicating it is racing away from the ravenous black hole at unprecedented speeds — almost like a bat of out Hell,” said research team member William Nielsen (Niel) Brandt, a professor of astronomy and physics at Penn State.

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

These winds are coming from the black hole’s quasar, which form around supermassive black holes at the centers of massive galaxies. 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.

“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,” explained York University Associate Professor Patrick Hall, who is Rogerson’s supervisor. “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.”

“An exciting discovery in recent years has been the realization that ultraviolet winds from quasars can both appear and disappear when viewed from Earth, depending on various conditions surrounding the black hole,” Brandt added.

The team used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to identify new outflows from quasars. After spotting about 300 examples, they selected about 100 for further exploration, collecting data with the Gemini Observatory‘s twin telescopes in Hawaii and Chile.

“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 kilometers an hour,” Hall said. “We plan to keep watching this quasar to see what happens next.”

Much of this research is aimed at better understanding outflows from quasars and why they happen.

“Quasar winds play an important role in galaxy formation,” Rogerson said. “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.”

The team’s findings were published in 2016 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Top Image: Artist’s illustration of turbulent winds of gas swirling around a black hole. Some of the gas is spiraling inward, but some is being blown away. NASA, and M. Weiss (Chandra X -ray Center)

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