Scientists identify the fastest growing black hole ever found in the recent universe

A supermassive black hole growing so fast that it glows 7,000 times brighter than the entire Milky Way has just been discovered, hiding in plain sight.

Every second, an amount of material equivalent to the mass of the Earth falls into this insatiable black hole.

As far as we know, it is the fastest growing black hole in the last 9 billion years – its activity is so frenetic that it sends light at multiple wavelengths across the Universe, making it what is known as a quasar.

The black hole is called SMSS J114447.77-430859.3 – J1144 for short – and an analysis of its properties suggests that the light from its power has traveled for about 7 billion years to reach us and that it reaches about 2.6 billion. times the mass of the Sun (a fairly respectable size for a supermassive black hole).

And there it is, simply out and about, lurking unnoticed until now. But due to its position – 18 degrees above the galactic plane – previous investigations looking for quasars have barely managed to miss it, only touching 20 degrees above the Milky Way’s disk.

“A little bit of historical bad luck has become our luck,” Australian National University astronomer Christopher Onken told ScienceAlert.

“Searching for distant objects becomes very difficult when you look close to the disk of the Milky Way: there are so many stars in the foreground that it is very difficult to find the 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 bright enough to appear in photographs taken of the sky as far back as 1901, so it’s definitely a case of hiding in plain sight. “

The gap in the ultraviolet investigation. (Christopher Onken)

Aside from supernova bursts that emit gamma-ray bursts, quasars are the brightest single objects in the Universe. They are the result of a supermassive black hole that accrues matter at incredible speed, from a huge disk of dust and gas that coils around the black hole like water in a drain.

It is not the black hole itself that shines, but that material, heated by extreme friction and gravity, which produces light across the spectrum.

Furthermore, the astronomers think that some of the material can be channeled and accelerated along the magnetic field lines around the outside of the black hole to the poles, where it is launched into space as high-speed jets of plasma. The interaction of these jets with gas in the surrounding galaxy produces radio waves.

But there is something really strange about J1144. Quasars with the same level of activity can be found, but much earlier in the history of the Universe, which dates back about 13.8 billion years.

After about 9 billion years ago, this furious quasar activity seems to have somewhat calmed down, making J1144 a charming weirdo. The quasar is so bright that someone with a garden telescope could go out and look at it with their own eyes.

“This black hole is such an outlier that, although you should never say never, I don’t think we’ll find another like this one,” says ANU astronomer Christian Wolf.

“We are quite confident that this record will not be broken. We have basically run out of sky where objects like this could be hiding.”

But the discovery sparked new fervor for hunting and compiling a census of bright quasars. The team has already confirmed 80 new quasars, with hundreds of additional candidates to analyze and confirm or rule out.

This means that the astronomical community is close to a full 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 phase of rapid growth might be and that will help us understand the physical mechanism behind it,” Onken told ScienceAlert.

“Whether it’s rare collisions between huge galaxies, or something special about the environment right around the black hole, or actually about the black hole itself, for example, a rapidly spinning black hole can release much more energy from the matter it accumulates than to one who barely turns for anything. “

Plus, because they’re so bright, the light from the quasars can be analyzed to learn more about the tenuous gas moving between galaxies, Onken said.

This can reveal the flow of gas around the Milky Way galaxy itself, giving us a better understanding of the three-dimensional movements in space around us.

The team’s research was presented at Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australiaand is available on the arXiv prepress server.

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