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The fastest-growing black hole in the universe has a massive appetite

Andrew Cuomo

The fastest-growing black hole in the universe is 34 billion times the mass of our sun and feasts on a meal the equivalent of our sun each day, according to a new study.

This massive, hungry black hole was first identified and studied by researchers in May 2018. Previously, they believed it consumed the mass equivalent to our sun every two days. Now, they have a better understanding of this monster black hole and its gluttonous behavior.

The study published Wednesday in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The black hole is known as J2157 and exists more than 12 billion light-years back in the distant universe. Astronomers are trying to understand how such massive black holes could evolve during the early days of the universe. The researchers continue to search for more massive black holes like this one to understand how they have grown.

“It’s the biggest black hole that’s been weighed in this early period of the Universe,” said Christopher Onken, lead study author and research fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, in a statement. “We’re seeing it at a time when the universe was only 1.2 billion years old, less than 10 per cent of its current age.”

It dwarfs the supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A* in our own Milky Way galaxy.

“The black hole’s mass is about 8,000 times bigger than the black hole in the centre of the Milky Way,” Onken said. “If the Milky Way’s black hole wanted to grow that fat, it would have to swallow two thirds of all the stars in our Galaxy.”

The SkyMapper telescope at the Australian National University’s Siding Spring Observatory was able to detect the black hole by its near-infrared light after it traveled across billions of light-years to reach us on Earth.

Monster force of nature

Astronomers first discovered the J2157 black hole due to its brightness in ultraviolet light. While light can’t escape from black holes, this black hole emits X-rays and ultraviolet light that are created due to its enormous appetite.

Astronomers have also defined this particular black hole as the most luminous known quasar. Quasars are supermassive black holes in galaxies that emit so much energy through their gaseous disks that they appear like stars through telescopes.

“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,” said Christian Wolf, an author on both the 2018 and new studies and associate professor at Australian National University, when the black hole was first discovered two years ago.

“If we had this monster sitting at the centre 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. It would likely make life on Earth impossible with the huge amounts of X-rays emanating from it.”

The new study followed up on the black hole by using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile to measure its mass.

“We knew we were onto a very massive black hole when we realised its fast growth rate,” said Fuyan Bian, study coauthor and staff astronomer at the European Southern Observatory, in a statement.

“How much black holes can swallow depends on how much mass they already have. So, for this one to be devouring matter at such a high rate, we thought it could become a new record holder. And now we know.”

Further study and observation of this black hole will also shed light on its host galaxy, which may reveal more information about the early universe and how massive black holes evolved early on.

“With such an enormous black hole, we’re also excited to see what we can learn about the galaxy in which it’s growing,” Onken said. “Is this galaxy one of the behemoths of the early Universe, or did the black hole just swallow up an extraordinary amount of its surroundings? We’ll have to keep digging to figure that out.”

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