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Hungry Black Hole is a Fast Eater

Oct 08, 2014 02:59 PM EDT

A hungry black hole some 12 million light-years from Earth has a voracious appetite, consuming gas from a nearby star 10 times faster than previously thought possible, according to astronomers behind a new study.

Lying on the outskirts of the galaxy NGC7793, the black hole called P13 is ingesting so much star gas that it weighs the equivalent of 100 billion billion hot dogs every minute.

"There's not really a strict limit like we thought, black holes can actually consume more gas and produce more light," Dr. Roberto Soria, an astronomer from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), said in a news release.

According to Soria, scientists first noticed P13 because it was much more luminous compared to other black holes, so naturally they assumed that that meant it was bigger, too.

"It was generally believed the maximum speed at which a black hole could swallow gas and produce light was tightly determined by its size," Soria explained.

But it turns out that P13 was actually on the small side despite being at least a million times brighter than the Sun. It was then that researchers realized just how big of an appetite this black hole had.

"As hotdog-eating legend Takeru Kobayashi famously showed us, size does not always matter in the world of competitive eating and even small black holes can sometimes eat gas at an exceptional rate," Soria said.

P13 rotates around a supergiant "donor" star 20 times heavier than our own Sun. One side of the donor star was always brighter than the other because it was illuminated by X-rays coming from near the black hole, so the star appeared brighter or fainter as it went around P13.

After measuring the time it takes for the black hole and the donor star to rotate around each other - which is 64 days - astronomers determined that the black hole is considerably smaller than our own Sun - less than 15 times the Sun's mass, to be exact. But P13 has proven that size doesn't always matter.

"These are the champions of competitive gas eating in the Universe, capable of swallowing their donor star in less than a million years, which is a very short time on cosmic scales," Soria added.

The findings were published in the journal Nature.

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