Scientists have caught a better-than-ever view of the way that black holes can drag space and time around with them as they spin, a finding that could lead to new understanding of Einstein's theory of relativity.
Nasa's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) captured the effect when a compact source of X-rays, known as the corona, moved towards the black hole and was pulled into it. That blurred and stretched the X-rays, a phenomenon that is rarely captured and has never been studied in such detail before.
Some of the light that falls into supermassive black holes is never seen again, but other high-energy light comes from the corona and a disk of superheated material that surrounds it.
Scientists don't know the shape and temperature of coronas — though artists have produced sketches of how the formations could look — but know that they contain particles that move close to the speed of light.
The light shining from the corona lit the part of the black hole that scientists were studying, which the agency described as almost as if a torch had been shone on the exact place they were looking at.
The black hole involved is known as Markarian 335, and is about 324 million light-years from Earth. The mass of around 10 million of our suns is packed into a space only 30 times as big, and the spinning black hole pulled space and time around with it.
Studying the blurring could help scientists to better understand black hole coronas, which until now have been mysterious.
It might also help demonstrate some of the effects described in Einstein's theory of relativity, because of the particles' speed.
"NuSTAR's unprecedented capability for observing this and similar events allows us to study the most extreme light-bending effects of general relativity," said Fiona Harrison, who is NuSTAR principal investigator and based at the California Institute of Technology.