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Astronomers Measure Record Cosmic Winds Near Small Black Hole

This artist's impression shows a binary system containing a stellar-mass black hole . The strong gravity of the black hole, on the left, is pulling gas away from a companion star on the right, which forms a disk of hot gas around the black hole, and the w

The U.S. space agency says cosmic winds generated by a disk of cosmic gas spinning around a small-scale type of black hole are the fastest ever recorded near such an object. NASA researchers say they clocked wind speeds of 32 million kilometers per hour - about 3 percent of the speed of light - using instruments aboard the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Such tremendous cosmic wind speeds were previously thought to occur only near the largest black holes in the universe. Black holes are the densest, heaviest objects in the universe. Their powerful gravitational fields create vortexes that pull in gas and debris from millions of kilometers around and capture even light in their grip.

The largest such objects - known as supermassive black holes - are thought to be at the center of most large galaxies, including our own, the Milky Way. They can be millions, or even billions of times more massive than our sun. But stellar-mass black holes are tiny by comparison, with masses just five to 10 times that of the sun.

The Earth-orbiting Chandra probe shows that the little stellar-mass black hole powering the record-breaking winds orbits a sun-like star in a binary system 28,000 light years from Earth.

NASA says the Chandra measurements and data shed important light on the behavior of smaller black holes, and their effect on nearby matter.

Gas disks like the one observed in the study are composed of the sub-atomic remains of material captured by the black hole’s powerful gravitational vortex, which spins the particles around at nearly light speeds. The energy generated during this process creates cosmic winds.

The new study is published in the current issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.