Astronomers believe they have discovered the fastest-growing black hole in the past 9 billion years.
They estimate that the supermassive black hole consumes the equivalent of one Earth every second and has a mass of 3 billion suns.
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 at Coonabarabran, New South Wales.
The object — J114447.77-430859.3, or J1144 for short — is 7,000 times brighter than all the light from the Milky Way.
Lead researcher Dr Christopher Onken, of the Australian National University, said the supermassive black hole was “somewhat halfway through the universe”.
“The light we see from this growing black hole has been traveling to us for about 7 billion years,” he said. The Big Bang occurred an estimated 13.8 billion years ago.
Scientists have found that J1144 was the brightest quasar in the last 9 billion years of cosmic history.
There are other similar-sized black holes, Onkin said, “but they all tend to be much older in the history of the universe where mergers between galaxies were more common.”
The reason for the unusual flashing of the J1144 is still not clear. “Maybe two large galaxies collided and directed a lot of gas into the black hole,” Onkin said.
“People have been searching 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 gotten away with so many, many searches done over the years is pretty cool.”
Why J1144 has eluded detection for so long may be in part due to its position in the night sky. “Historically, people have avoided looking very close to the age level of the Milky Way because there are too many stars, there are so many pollutants, and it’s very hard to find anything further away,” Onkin said.
“There were searches that stopped looking at 25 degrees… or even 20 degrees from the plane of the Milky Way. This source is 18 degrees away.”
Whereas black holes themselves are invisible – their gravity is so great that not even light can escape them – they can be observed due to the matter orbiting around them.
Dr. Fiona Panther, a gravitational-wave astronomer at the University of Western part of Australiawho was not involved in the research, described black holes as “very chaotic eaters… If there is a lot of gas and dust being pushed into the black hole, it will actually spit out a lot of it.”
“They are usually spit out in huge 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 can escape beyond the event horizon, black holes “do not have any special absorption force beyond their gravitational ability to pull objects toward them,” Onekin said.
“If you take the sun and shrink it into a black hole… we will be in perpetual night but the motion of the planets around the sun won’t change much because the mass hasn’t changed.”
“Our Milky Way has a black hole four million times larger than the Sun,” Onken said.
The J1144 watch is bright enough to be visible to amateur astronomers. “If you want to see it with your own eyes, you will probably need a telescope that is 30 to 40 centimeters wide,” Onkin said.
J1144 was first spotted by Adrian Lucy, a doctoral student, while searching for nearby pairs of binary stars in the Milky Way.
The research has not yet been peer-reviewed; Posted as a file Prepress and submitted to Publications of the Australian Astronomical Society.