Astronomers discover fastest-growing black hole in the universe

A bright, faraway supermassive black hole. Photo by Hubble/NASA/ESA

May 16 (UPI) — Astronomers have identified the fastest-growing black hole in the universe. They found the supermassive black hole in the far reaches of the cosmos, 12 billion light-years away.

The black hole is estimated to boast a mass of 20 billion suns and eat the equivalent of our sun every two days, yielding a growth rate of 1 percent every 1 million years.

“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,” Christian Wolf, an astrophysicist at Australian National University, said in a news release. “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 pinpoint star that would almost wash out all of the stars in the sky.”

Wolf and his colleagues were able to study the massive black hole with the help of the SkyMapper telescope at the ANU Siding Spring Observatory, which rendered the object in infrared. Because the supermassive black hole is so far away, its light red-shifted during its long journey to Earth.

“As the universe expands, space expands and that stretches the light waves and changes their color,” Wolf said.

The European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite was also essential to the discovery. Gaia is working its way toward compiling the largest and most precise 3D space catalog in history, measuring tiny motions of millions of celestial objects.

Gaia failed to measure any movement, only extreme luminosity, suggesting the object was faraway and very large — likely a massive quasar. The spectrograph on the ANU 2.3 meter telescope helped astronomers confirm the supermassive black hole’s identity.

Massive quasars like the newly discovered supermassive black hole can help astronomers study the distant universe. Scientists can see shadows in front of the object and its intense energy helps ionize large regions of space, making the universe more transparent.

Astronomers hope the next generation of telescopes will be able to measure the expansion of the universe with the help of supermassive black holes.

A paper describing the newly discovered quasar has been published online. The paper will soon be formally published in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia.

“We don’t know how this one grew so large, so quickly in the early days of the universe,” Wolf said. “The hunt is on to find even faster-growing black holes.”


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