Scientists discover rapidly growing supermassive black hole
An international team of scientists, led by astronomers at The Australian National University (ANU), have discovered what they believe to be the fastest-growing black hole of the last nine billion years, with their research published to arXiv and submitted to Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia.
Discovered as part of the SkyMapper project, the supermassive black hole J1144 consumes the equivalent of one Earth every second and shines 7000 times brighter than all the light from our own galaxy. Lead researcher Dr Christopher Onken and his co-authors described it as a “very large, unexpected needle in the haystack”.
“Astronomers have been hunting for objects like this for more than 50 years,” Onken said. “They have found thousands of fainter ones, but this astonishingly bright one had slipped through unnoticed.”
The black hole has the mass of three billion suns — others of a comparable size stopped growing so quickly billions of years ago. Onken and his team want to know why this one is different.
“Did something catastrophic happen?” Onken pondered. “Perhaps two big galaxies crashed into each other, funnelling a whole lot of material onto the black hole to feed it.”
Co-author Associate Professor Christian Wolf, also from ANU, added, “This black hole is such an outlier that while you should never say never, I don’t believe we will find another one like this.
“We are fairly confident this record will not be broken. We have essentially run out of sky where objects like this could be hiding.”
J1144 has a visual magnitude of 14.5 — a measure of how bright an object appears to an observer on Earth — meaning anyone with a decent telescope in a very dark backyard can see it comfortably. As noted by co-author and ANU PhD researcher Samuel Lai, “It is 500 times bigger than the black hole in our own galaxy.
“The orbits of the planets in our solar system would all fit inside its event horizon — the black hole’s boundary from which nothing can escape.”
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