By Rafal Rogoza ( | First Posted: Feb 27, 2013 04:14 PM EST

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the bright star-forming ring that surrounds the heart of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1097, a Seyfert galaxy. The larger-scale structure of the galaxy is barely visible. Its comparatively dim spiral arms, which surround its heart in a loose embrace, reach out beyond the edges of this frame. This face-on galaxy, lying 45 million light-years away from Earth in the southern constellation of Fornax (The Furnace), is particularly attractive for astronomers. Lurking at the very centre of the galaxy, a supermassive black hole 100 million times the mass of our Sun is gradually sucking in the matter around it. The area immediately around the black hole shines powerfully with radiation coming from the material falling in. The distinctive ring around the black hole is bursting with new star formation due to an inflow of material toward the central bar of the galaxy. These star-forming regions are glowing brightly thanks to emission from clouds of ionised hydrogen. The ring is around 5000 light-years across, although the spiral arms of the galaxy extend tens of thousands of light-years beyond it. REUTERS/NASA/ESA/Hubble/Handout

Astronomers studying supermassive black holes say they have accurately measured how fast the mysterious consumers of space matter spin.

The black hole at the center of the spiral galaxy NGC 1365 was measured by research and is spinning at roughly 84 percent as fast as Einstein's general theory of relativity would allow.

"It's the first time that we can really say that black holes are spinning," Fiona Harrison, study co-author from Caltech in Pasadena, told "The promise that this holds for being able to understand how black holes grow is, I think, the major implication."

The black hole is 56 million light-years away from Earth and is pumping out large quantities of energy that has caught the attention of researchers. Using images taken in July 2012 by  X-ray telescopes aboard the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton observatory and NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, researchers were able to trace the motion of the disk of matter that rotates around the black hole.

Guido Risaliti of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics Arcetri Observatory led the study and were able to measure the rotation speed at 84 percent allowed by the theory of general relativity. A rate of speed so fast that it wouldn't make sense in miles per hour, the report says.

"The analogy of an actual velocity is not quite right," Harrison said. "But what you can say is that spinning black holes twist space-time around them. And if you were standing near the black hole, basically your space-time would be twisted, or dragged, around such that you would have to rotate once every four minutes just to be standing still." 

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