Fastest-growing black hole of past 9 billion years may have been found, Australia-led astronomers say

Astronomers believe they have discovered the fastest growing black hole of the past 9 billion years.

The supermassive black hole consumes the equivalent of one Earth every second and has the mass of 3 billion suns, they estimate.

Scientists 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 in 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 “more or less halfway across the universe.”

“The light we see from this expanding black hole has been traveling toward us for about 7 billion years,” he said. The Big Bang is estimated to have happened 13.8 billion years ago.

J1144 was the most luminous quasar in the last 9 billion years of cosmic history, the scientists found.

There are other black holes of similar size “but they are all much earlier in the history of the universe, where the mergers between galaxies were much more common,” Onken said.

The reason for J1144’s unusual brightness is still unclear. “Maybe two large galaxies collided and led a lot of gas into the black hole,” Onken said.

“People have been looking for these expanding black holes since the early 1960s,” he said, adding that about 880,000 of them had been discovered and cataloged to date. “The fact that something so bright has escaped the many, many searches done over the years is quite remarkable.”

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Why J1144 has been undetected for so long may be partly due to its position in the night sky. “Historically, people have avoided looking very close to the plane of the Milky Way because there are so many stars, there are so many contaminants, it would be very difficult to find anything further away,” Onken said.

“There have been searches that have stopped looking at 25 degrees … or even 20 degrees away from the plane of the Milky Way. This source is 18 degrees away.”

While black holes themselves are not visible — their gravity is so great that not even light can escape them — they are observable because of the matter swirling around them.

A side-by-side comparison of the sky from photographic plates observed in 1901 and 2018
A side-by-side comparison of the sky of photographic plates observed with a 20 cm telescope (an exposure time of one hour) in 1901 and the 1.3 m telescope of the SkyMapper Southern Sky Survey with a CCD camera (and a exposure of 100 seconds) in 2018. Photo: Christopher Onken/Australian National University

dr. Fiona Panther, a gravitational wave astronomer at the University of Western Australiawho was not involved in the study, described black holes as “very, very messy eaters … if a lot of gas and dust is pushed onto the black hole, it will spit out a lot of it.

“It’s usually spewed out in huge jets … quasars are a particular type of black hole jet,” she said.

Nearly every galaxy in the universe has a supermassive black hole at its center, Panther said.

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While nothing can escape beyond the event horizon, black holes “have no special suction beyond their gravity to pull things toward them,” Onken said.

“If you took the sun and reduced it to a black hole … we would be in the night forever, but the motions of the planets around the sun wouldn’t change much because the mass hasn’t changed.”

“The Milky Way, our own galaxy, has a black hole that is 4 meters larger than the Sun,” said Onken.

J1144 is bright enough to be visible to amateur astronomers. “If you want to see it with your eye, you’ll probably need a telescope with a diameter of 30 to 40 cm,” said Onken.

J1144 was first spotted by Adrian Lucy, a graduate student, while searching for closely spaced binary stars in the Milky Way.

The study has not yet been peer-reviewed; it has been published as a pre-print and submitted to the publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia.

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