Astronomers believe they have discovered the fastest growing black hole in the past 9 billion years.
The supermassive black hole consumes the equivalent of an Earth every second and has the mass of 3 billion suns, they estimate.
Scientists have discovered an extremely bright quasar, a luminous object powered by a supermassive black hole, using the SkyMapper Southern Sky Survey – a 1.3 meter telescope in Coonabarabran, New South Wales.
The object – J114447.77-430859.3, or J1144 for short – is 7,000 times brighter than all the light in the Milky Way.
Lead researcher Dr Christopher Onken of the Australian National University said the supermassive black hole was “more or less halfway through the universe”.
“The light we see from this growing black hole has been reaching us for about 7 billion years,” he said. The big bang happened about 13.8 billion years ago.
J1144 was the brightest quasar in 9 billion years of cosmic history, scientists have found.
There are other black holes of a similar size “but they all tend to be much earlier in the history of the universe where mergers between galaxies were much more common,” Onken said.
The reason for the unusual brightness of J1144 is still unclear. “Maybe two large galaxies collided and funneled a lot of gas into the black hole,” Onken said.
“People have been looking for these growing black holes since the early 1960s,” he said, adding that about 880,000 of them have been discovered and cataloged so far. “The fact that something so brilliant has escaped the very extensive research that has been done over the years is quite remarkable.”
Part of the reason J1144 eluded discovery for so long may be due to its position in the night sky. “Historically, people have avoided looking very closely at the Milky Way’s age map because there are so many stars, there are so many contaminants, that it would be very difficult to find anything. further away,” Onken said.
“There has been research that has stopped looking at 25 degrees… or even 20 degrees from the plane of the Milky Way. This source is at 18 degrees.
While black holes themselves aren’t visible — their gravity is so great that even light can’t escape them — they are observable because of the matter swirling around them.
Dr Fiona Panther, a gravitational wave astronomer at the University of Western Australia, who was not involved in the research, described black holes as “very, very messy eaters… if there’s a lot of gas and dust pushed into the black hole, it will spit out a lot of it.
“It will typically be spewed out in massive jets… quasars are a special type of black hole jet,” she said.
Almost every galaxy in the universe has a supermassive black hole at its center, Panther said.
While nothing beyond the event horizon can escape, black holes “have no special suction power beyond their gravitational ability to pull things towards them,” Onken said. .
“If you took the sun and reduced it to a black hole…we’d be in perpetual night, but the motions of the planets around the sun wouldn’t change much because the mass hasn’t changed.”
“The Milky Way, our own galaxy, has a black hole that is 4m times larger than the sun,” Onken said.
J1144 is bright enough to be visible to amateur astronomers. “If you want to see it with your eyes, you probably need a 30-40cm diameter telescope,” Onken said.
J1144 was first spotted by PhD student Adrian Lucy while searching for nearby pairs of binary stars in the Milky Way.
The research is not yet peer-reviewed; it was published as a preprint and submitted to Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia.