The fastest growing black hole ever seen is swallowing the mass equivalent of an entire Earth every second.
This gargantuan black hole has a mass 3 billion times that of the sun, and its rapid consumption leads to rapid growth of the behemoth, an international research team has found. The black hole gorges itself through a process called accretion, in which it siphons matter from a thin disc of gas and dust circling around the massive object.
Other black holes of a similar size stopped growing billions of years ago, but this newly discovered black hole continues to grow. It is now 500 times larger than Sagittarius A*the a supermassive black hole in the heart of Milky Wayand would suit all solar system behind its event horizon, the limit beyond which nothing can escape.
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Based on this information, the researchers determined that the new black hole is the fastest growing black hole discovered in the last 9 billion years.
“Now we want to know why this one is different – did something catastrophic happen?” lead researcher Christopher Onken, a researcher at the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Australian National University (ANU), said in a statement (opens in a new tab). “Maybe two big galaxies crashed into each other, pouring a large amount of material into the black hole to fuel it.”
This rapid accretion of matter on the surface of the black hole also resulted in a quasar blasting enough energy to make it 7,000 times brighter than the light of every star in the milky way. In fact, this quasar (designated SMSS J114447.77-430859.3) is also the brightest of such events for about the last two-thirds of the universe’s 13.8 billion years of existence.
The quasar has a luminosity of magnitude 14.5 when viewed from Earthwhich means it is only slightly weaker than Pluto and bright enough to potentially be spotted by skywatchers with good telescopes in a very dark area.
The discovery of the feeding black hole was made as part of the SkyMapper Southern Sky Survey, conducted by the 1.3-meter (4.3-foot) Telescope at the Siding Spring Observatory in Australia.
Despite the quasar’s incredible luminosity, Onken and his team still described the discovery as “an unexpectedly big needle in the haystack.”
“Astronomers have been searching for objects like this for more than 50 years,” Onken said. “They found thousands of weaker ones, but this surprisingly bright one went unnoticed.”
Christian Wolf, an associate professor at the ANU and a member of the research team, said he thought astronomers were unlikely to find another black hole growing at this rate or powering a quasar of this magnitude or larger.
“We basically ran out of skies where objects like this could hide,” Wolf said. “We are quite confident that this record will not be broken.”
A paper detailing the find has been submitted to the journal Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia but has not yet been peer reviewed. A pre-printed version is available through thearXiv database.
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