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RX J1131-1231: Chandra & XMM-Newton Provide Direct Measurement of Distant Black Hole's Spin
RX J1131-1231
RX J1131-1231

  • Astronomers have directly measured the spin of a supermassive black hole in a quasar that is located 6 billion light years away.

  • This is the most distant black hole where such a measurement has been made.

  • Black holes are defined by just two simple characteristics: mass and spin.

  • Finding out how quickly black holes are spinning reveals important information about how they grow over time.

Multiple images of a distant quasar are visible in this combined view from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope. The Chandra data, along with data from ESA's XMM-Newton, were used to directly measure the spin of the supermassive black hole powering this quasar. This is the most distant black hole where such a measurement has been made, as reported in our press release.

Gravitational lensing by an intervening elliptical galaxy has created four different images of the quasar, shown by the Chandra data in pink. Such lensing, first predicted by Einstein, offers a rare opportunity to study regions close to the black hole in distant quasars, by acting as a natural telescope and magnifying the light from these sources. The Hubble data in red, green and blue shows the elliptical galaxy in the middle of the image, along with other galaxies in the field.

The quasar is known as RX J1131-1231 (RX J1131 for short), located about 6 billion light years from Earth. Using the gravitational lens, a high quality X-ray spectrum - that is, the amount of X-rays seen at different energies - of RX J1131 was obtained.

The X-rays are produced when a swirling accretion disk of gas and dust that surrounds the black hole creates a multimillion-degree cloud, or corona near the black hole. X-rays from this corona reflect off the inner edge of the accretion disk. The reflected X-ray spectrum is altered by the strong gravitational forces near the black hole. The larger the change in the spectrum, the closer the inner edge of the disk must be to the black hole.

The authors of the new study found that the X-rays are coming from a region in the disk located only about three times the radius of the event horizon, the point of no return for infalling matter. This implies that the black hole must be spinning extremely rapidly to allow a disk to survive at such a small radius.

This result is important because black holes are defined by just two simple characteristics: mass and spin. While astronomers have long been able to measure black hole masses very effectively, determining their spins have been much more difficult.

These spin measurements can give researchers important clues about how black holes grow over time. If black holes grow mainly from collisions and mergers between galaxies they should accumulate material in a stable disk, and the steady supply of new material from the disk should lead to rapidly spinning black holes. In contrast if black holes grow through many small accretion episodes, they will accumulate material from random directions. Like a merry go round that is pushed both backwards and forwards, this would make the black hole spin more slowly.

The discovery that space-time at the black hole's event horizon is spinning at over half the speed of light suggests that RX J1131, observed at a distance of six billion light years, corresponding to an age about 7.7 billion years after the Big Bang, has grown via mergers, rather than pulling material in from different directions.

These results were published online in the journal Nature. The lead author is Rubens Reis of the University of Michigan. His co-authors are Mark Reynolds and Jon M. Miller, also of Michigan, as well as Dominic Walton of the California Institute of Technology.


Fast Facts for RX J1131-1231:
Credit  X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ of Michigan/R.C.Reis et al; Optical: NASA/STScI
Release Date  March 5, 2014
Scale  Image is 1.2 arcmin on a side (About 1.6 million light years)
Category  Quasars & Active Galaxies, Black Holes
Coordinates (J2000)  RA 11h 31m 51.60s | Dec -12° 31´ 57.00"
Constellation  Crater
Observation Date  28 Nov 2009
Observation Time  7 hours 39 min
Obs. ID  11540
Instrument  ACIS
References Reis, R.C., et al, 2014 Nature, in press.
Color Code  X-ray (Pink); Optical (Red, Green, Blue)
Distance Estimate  6.05 billion light years (z=0.658)
distance arrow
Visitor Comments (17)

How long could the theoretical singularity have existed before the theoretical Big Bang occurred?

Posted by Wade Born on Friday, 01.27.17 @ 12:03pm

Just remember the black hole quasar is actually just one of the pink blobs - the other pink blobs and the ring around the central foreground object are caused by gravitational bending of the light. The ring and the central object are not the black hole - though it kinda looks like a hole.

Posted by David on Monday, 06.22.15 @ 19:18pm

Excellent article. Beautiful Image. Very informative, thank you

Posted by Ben Bowen on Tuesday, 04.14.15 @ 21:28pm

Is this the first photo of a quasar?

Posted by Jay on Saturday, 01.10.15 @ 21:44pm

How intruiging it is.

Posted by Jun-Young Lee on Wednesday, 10.8.14 @ 14:25pm

So what is on the other side of the black hole? I'm very new to all this so very curious. Does everything that goes into a black hole disintegrate? What would a scientist actually expect to see if man could actually make it thru a black hole? Might be a stupid question to some, but is that not how we learn?

Posted by Cindy Reynante on Wednesday, 07.23.14 @ 19:33pm

I like knowing about the black hole.

Posted by rachel on Monday, 05.19.14 @ 03:32am

Always been fascinated with black holes. To me they are natures universe reactors. After all, each one has,theoretically, infinite mass. ie. a singularity. Just as our own universe was a singularity of infinite mass and energy milliseconds before the big bang . Maybe what we are observing in a black hole is actually the back side of yet another big bang....and yet...the natural manufacture of another universe on its other side.

Posted by matthew storer on Tuesday, 05.6.14 @ 04:14am

Is this an image created from real data or an artists impression?

Posted by Tom on Thursday, 05.1.14 @ 01:36am

Curve that occurs in space is appreciated, it's like when you throw a stone into the water.

Posted by wilson piriz on Thursday, 04.17.14 @ 09:41am

I really like black holes.
I never thought that I would ever be able to actually see a black hole's effects in a photograph.

Posted by Mike Nemec on Wednesday, 04.9.14 @ 19:39pm

Hello, it's beautiful, all of Nature is beautiful. I have a question about gravity density, can it ever be described as compressed compression pressure density?

Posted by JJM on Friday, 03.7.14 @ 20:13pm

Very interesting. Thanks for posting this.
Keep up the good work, cheers

Posted by Gabriel on Friday, 03.7.14 @ 10:25am

Good work.
You don't mention the approximate mass of the black hole.

Posted by kopernik on Thursday, 03.6.14 @ 10:40am

This result is important because black holes are defined by just two simple characteristics, mass and spin.

Posted by Nick on Thursday, 03.6.14 @ 08:41am

That is fantastic.

Posted by Afonso Loureiro on Wednesday, 03.5.14 @ 16:53pm

Doesn't a black hole possess linear a third property.
This would be useful in studying them how starlight from behind them changes with the black hole's forward velocity. Maybe more topics.
Thank you

Posted by bob howard on Wednesday, 03.5.14 @ 14:58pm

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