Supermassive black hole spit out of home galaxy
The idea of a black hole - a deformation in spacetime where gravity sucks everything, even light, into an abyss - is scary enough without the thought that something that destructive could be on the move. But NASA astronomers have found evidence that a massive black hole is being ejected from its galaxy and moving at several million miles per hour.
"It's hard to believe that a supermassive black hole weighing millions of times the mass of the sun could be moved at all, let alone kicked out of a galaxy at enormous speed," said Francesca Civano of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), who led the new study that will appear in the June 10 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. "But these new data support the idea that gravitational waves -- ripples in the fabric of space first predicted by Albert Einstein but never detected directly -- can exert an extremely powerful force."
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Civano's team was studying a system known as CID-42, which is in the middle of a galaxy about 4 billion light years away. Using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, they had previously spotted two distinct, compact sources of optical light in CID-42.
These X-ray light sources are caused by superheated material around the edges of a supermassive black hole, but they couldn't tell if the light was coming from one or two sources using Hubble data. So they trained high-resolution ground-based telescopes in Chile on the section of sky emitting X-rays, and found that two black holes were moving apart at the break-neck speed of 3 million miles per hour.
The recent observations from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory suggest that two entire galaxies collided, so the two black holes they housed did as well. The team thinks the runaway black hole merged with the other, resulting in a powerful recoil that hurled it out of its own galaxy and left behind a bright star cluster that shows up as a second light source.
Talk about a hit and run. This kind of event is fairly rare, but it could point to the possibility that there are several rogue black holes zipping between galaxies.
The team says there are two possible alternative explanations that arise if there's another black hole that's obscured from our view. it's possible that CID-42 contains two supermassive black holes that are spiraling towards one another, or that the collision actually occurred between three black holes and the lightest one was ejected.
Either way, there is a rogue black hole speeding through the universe eating everything in sight. And it's not the only one.
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