Astronomers at the Australian National University (ANU) have made an astounding discovery. Looking through data from Europe’s Gaia satellite, the researchers uncovered a supermassive black hole that’s expanding at dizzying speeds, swallowing up the surrounding cosmos.
The Australian astronomers are calling it a “monster” black hole and reveal that it eats up a mass equivalent to our sun every two days.
The supermassive black hole, also known as a quasar, is very ancient. Just like the massive cluster of 14 galaxies recently discovered in a South Pole Telescope survey, the giant black hole dates back more than 12 billion years to the early beginnings of our universe.
Since it took this long for its light to reach us, spotting this supermassive black hole is like looking back through time, when the universe was just 1.4-billion-years-old.
Astronomers estimate that this mystifying quasar is 20 billion times the mass of our sun and is growing at an incredibly fast rate of one percent every one million years.
This makes the newfound giant black hole the fastest-growing quasar in the known universe.
Dr. Christian Wolf, from ANU’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, explains that the rapidly expanding quasar puts on a spectacular light show as it engulfs everything around it.
“This black hole is growing so rapidly that it’s shining thousands of times more brightly than an entire galaxy, due to all of the gases it sucks in daily that cause lots of friction and heat.”
The ancient quasar lies at a safe distance of billions of light-years from Earth. In fact, the supermassive black hole is so far away that its ultraviolet light red-shifted before it reached our planet and was picked up by the SkyMapper telescope at the ANU Siding Spring Observatory.
“As the universe expands, space expands and that stretches the light waves and changes their color,” Wolf clarified.
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In a paper due to appear in Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, the ANU team explained that they spotted the fast-growing quasar by combining motion data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite with photometry from the SkyMapper and NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).
After traveling for more than 12 billion years, the quasar’s light was detected by the SkyMapper in the near-infrared spectrum. Its presence was confirmed by the spectrograph on the ANU 2.3-meter telescope. Meanwhile, the Gaia satellite, which measures tiny motions of celestial objects, identified the black hole as a stationary object, which suggested it was very large and very far away.
Astronomers are stumped by its enormous size and can’t quite tell how the supermassive black hole grew that much so rapidly at a time when the universe was still so young.
Wolf painted a vivid picture of what the supermassive black hole would look like from Earth if it were located in the center of our galaxy.
“If we had this monster sitting at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, it would appear 10 times brighter than a full moon. It would appear as an incredibly bright pin-point star that would almost wash out all of the stars in the sky.”
The mammoth black hole also emanates vast amounts of radiated X-rays, which would probably “make life on Earth impossible,” the astronomer pointed out.
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According to Wolf, the kinds of black holes that are both fast-growing and incredibly large are “exceedingly rare” to find and could actually be used to measure the expansion of the universe.
At the same time, the rare quasar could shed more light — quite literally, as it shines bright enough to make nearby objects visible, notes ANU — into how elements are formed in the universe’s oldest galaxies.
Wolf explained that fast-growing supermassive black holes can be used as beacons to study everything around them, because they’re so bright that astronomers can spot the shadows of other objects passing in front of them.
In addition, these fast-growing quasars help clear the fog around transiting objects, “which makes the universe more transparent,” said Wolf.