A supermassive black hole growing so fast that it is 7,000 times brighter than the entire Milky Way is hiding in plain sight.
Every second, an amount of material equal to the mass of Earth falls into this insatiable black hole.
As far as we know, it is the fastest-growing black hole of the past 9 billion years – its activity is so frenzied that it ignites multi-wavelength light throughout the universe, making it known as a quasar. goes.
The black hole is called SMSS J114447.77-430859.3 – J1144 for short – and an analysis of its properties shows that the light from its food has traveled about 7 billion years to reach us, and that it takes about 2.6 billion years. Billion times more. The mass of the Sun (quite a respectable size for a supermassive black hole).
And there it was, just hanging out, unnoticed until now. But where it sits – 18 degrees above the galactic plane – previous surveys looking for quasars have managed to miss it, skimming only 20 degrees above the Milky Way’s disk.
“A little bit of historical misfortune has turned out to be our good fortune,” astronomer Christopher Onken of the Australian National University told Science Alert.
“Discovering distant objects becomes very difficult when you look close to the disk of the Milky Way – there are so many foreground stars that it is very difficult to find rare background sources.
“Another team used an ultraviolet satellite to search for these bright objects across the sky, but J1144 fell into a small gap in their coverage. But the source is so bright that it appeared in photographs taken from the sky as far back as 1901. If visible, it is certainly a matter of hiding in plain sight.”
Aside from supernova explosions that produce gamma-ray bursts, quasars are the brightest single objects in the universe. They result from a massive disk of dust and gas that spirals down a creek into the black hole like water, a supermassive black hole at a tremendous rate.
It is not the black hole itself that shines, but the material, heated by extreme friction and gravity, that generates light across the spectrum.
In addition, astronomers believe that some material may be propelled and accelerated along magnetic field lines around the poles outside the black hole, where it escapes into space as high-speed jets of plasma. is launched. The interaction of these jets with gas in the surrounding galaxy produces radio waves.
But there’s something really weird about J1144. Quasars with a similar level of activity can be found, but much earlier in the history of the universe, which is about 13.8 billion years old.
About 9 billion years ago, this fiery quasar activity calmed down somewhat, making J1144 a fascinating weirdo. The quasar is bright enough that someone with a backyard telescope can go outside and see it with their own eyes.
“This black hole is so big that you should never say, I don’t believe we’ll find another like it,” says ANU astronomer Christian Wolf.
“We’re pretty confident this record won’t be broken. We’ve essentially run out of sky where objects like this might be hiding.”
But the discovery has inspired renewed enthusiasm for hunting and compiling a census of bright quasars. The team has already confirmed 80 new quasars, with hundreds more candidates to be analyzed and confirmed or rejected.
This means that the astronomical community is close to a complete census of bright quasars in the relatively recent universe.
“None of them are as bright as J1144, but they will help paint a more complete picture of how common this rapid development phase may be, and will help us understand the physical mechanisms behind it, Onken told ScienceAlert.
“Whether it’s rare collisions between massive galaxies, or something special about the environment around a black hole, or really about a black hole—for example, a rapidly spinning black hole with a lot of matter Can release more energy which stores more energy than one. Hardly moving.”
In addition, because they are so bright, light from quasars can be analyzed to learn more about the weak gas flowing between galaxies, Onken said.
It can reveal the flow of gas around the Milky Way, giving us a better understanding of three-dimensional movements in the space around us.
The team’s research is presented Publications of the Astronomical Society of AustraliaAnd the preprint server is available on arXiv.