"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."
Fortunately, this “monster” isn’t in the center of the Milky Way but 12 billion light years away, where a massive black hole is – or ‘was’ in the early days of the universe – consuming mass the size of our Sun every two days, according to Dr. Christian Wolf, an astronomer at the Australian National University (ANU) and lead author of a study on this all-consuming quasar. In the study, published in Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia and and reported in a press release by ANU, he describes the process astronomers are using to find these rare supermassive black holes. Using the SkyMapper telescope at the ANU Siding Spring Observatory, they saw light in the near-infrared that indicated something huge was emitting radiation. That object was supermassive black hole SMSS J215728.21-360215.1. They then used the European Space Agency's Gaia satellite to determine its distance from Earth, which put it lass than two billion years from the birth of the universe.
While that alone makes it special, the size and huge appetite of this supermassive black hole are what make it truly unique. While the average size of a black hole is about 50 of our Suns, this one’s initial weight was an astronomical 5,000 Suns, indicating the Big Bang birthed bigger babies than scientists had imagined.
"So, either black holes can grow faster than the speed limit, but we don't know how that works, and we have not seen it yet in action, or there is an unknown way to make 5,000 solar mass black holes very close in time to the Big Bang. But who knows what happened in the dark early ages of the universe?"
Not only is its size unique, so is its record-shattering growth rate, which was measured at about 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."
While this supermassive black hole is a mystery, it’s also a benefit to astronomers. By sucking in or ionizing gases, it clears the space around it, making it more visible. And that bright light from behind (equivalent to 700 trillion suns) highlights the shadows of objects passing in front of it, making them more visible as well. All of this will help Wolf and other astronomers find more of these rare space objects.
How big of a deal is this discovery? Wolf explains in the New Your Times what happened when he found it.
"All this searching happened within 36 hours between a Saturday early morning and a Sunday afternoon … When it was clear what we had found, I had a bottle of Champagne with my wife."
Even astronomers deserve to have a little fun.