For the 1st time, scientists accidentally measure the swirling ring around a black hole

An artist’s interpretation of a black hole’s accretion disk might look like. (Image credit: Getty Images)

For the first time ever, scientists have measured the exact size of the disk of matter swirling around a supermassive black hole. The serendipitous finding could help expand our knowledge of how these cosmic juggernauts grow and how the galaxies that surround them evolve over time.

Accretion disks are massive swirling rings of superheated gas, dust and plasma that rotate around black holes or other enormous cosmic objects, such as pulsars. The disks around black holes are made from remnants of shredded stars, exoplanets and other matter that was ripped apart as it was pulled toward the event horizon — the point beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape the black hole’s gravitational pull. As accretion disks rotate, they emit a range of electromagnetic radiation including X-rays, infrared radiation, radio waves and visible light, making them the only part of a black hole that astronomers can detect.    

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