If you think black holes are scary, wait until you hear about a “runaway” black hole that is tearing through the universe at a staggering speed.
NASA has recently reported that there is an “invisible monster on the loose,” which is a supermassive black hole that weighs as much as 20 million suns and has left a trail of stars behind it.
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How did the black hole run away?
According to NASA, the runaway black hole escaped from its host galaxy after a violent encounter with two other galaxies and their central black holes. The three black holes formed a “chaotic and unstable configuration,” and one of them got ejected from the system due to gravitational recoil. As the runaway black hole took off in one direction, the two remaining black holes shot off in the other direction.
What is the black hole doing now?
The runaway black hole is now plowing through intergalactic space at a speed of about 3 million miles per hour, which is fast enough to travel from Earth to the moon in 14 minutes. As it moves, it encounters gas and dust that get shocked and heated by its motion. This triggers star formation in a narrow corridor behind the black hole, creating a 200,000-light-year-long “contrail” of newborn stars. This contrail is twice the diameter of our Milky Way galaxy and almost half as bright as its parent galaxy.
How did NASA discover the runaway black hole?
The runaway black hole was discovered by accident by a team of astronomers led by Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University. They were using the Hubble Space Telescope to look for globular star clusters in a nearby dwarf galaxy when they noticed a strange streak of light. They initially thought it was a cosmic ray hitting the camera detector, but when they eliminated that possibility, they realized it was something they had never seen before.
They followed up with spectroscopy observations using the W. M. Keck Observatories in Hawaii, which confirmed that they were seeing a supermassive black hole with a trail of ionized oxygen at its tip. They also measured its distance and velocity using data from other telescopes.
Why is this discovery important?
The discovery of the runaway black hole is important for several reasons. First, it provides a rare glimpse into the aftermath of a violent merger of three galaxies and their central black holes, which is expected to be common in the early universe. Second, it reveals a new mechanism for star formation in intergalactic space, which could contribute to the cosmic evolution of galaxies. Third, it challenges our understanding of how black holes interact with their environment and how they affect their surroundings.
The runaway black hole is an “invisible monster on the loose,” but also a fascinating object for scientific exploration. NASA plans to continue observing it with Hubble and other telescopes to learn more about its origin, behavior, and impact on the universe.