The Harvard Gazette recently published an article that stated that ‘Astronomers have detected a moving supermassive black hole. Researchers at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian have identified the clearest case to date of a supermassive black hole in motion’
Now, there’s so much to unpack from this news information –
Let’s get to these questions one by one,
What is happening?
The world learned about the existence of black holes in 1964 for the first time. Since then, we’ve come to understand a few things about them. One of the theories is that it seems very likely that most (if not all) spiral galaxies contain a ‘supermassive black hole’ at their center and sometimes more than one. If you’re wondering about our Milky Way Galaxy – you guessed it right, we have a supermassive black hole too!
But wait, before we move any further! How is a supermassive black hole different from one that’s not super…massive?
A supermassive black hole has between a million and a billion times more mass than a typical stellar black hole. On the other hand, a ‘normal’ or as they call it – stellar black hole can be as big as about 10 to 100 solar masses i.e. our sun! Any black hole between these two sizes is termed an intermediate black hole.
That being clear, the reason why we’re not sure about the presence of a supermassive black hole in every galaxy is because it’s impossible to physically examine every spiral galaxy in the universe. Also, certain theories tell us that it isn’t necessary for galaxies to contain central black holes – they will still hold together as galaxies without them.
Now, you’ll be amazed to learn that the objective of this study was to observe the movement of galaxies and their supermassive black holes. To quote lead astronomer Dominic Pesce, “We wanted to understand if the velocities of the black holes were the same as the velocities of the galaxies they reside in. They expected them to have the same velocity. If not, that implies the black hole has been disturbed.”
That means galaxies are not stationary, and so are the super massive black holes residing in them! If they’re moving, are they moving at the same speed? It’s like if you sit in a moving car, you and the car may appear to be moving at the same speed from outside, but if you start changing places inside this moving car, then your relative speed to that of the car will be different.
Pesce and his colleagues have been looking at and comparing the motions of 10 galaxies and of the supermassive black holes residing within them. After five years of study, they found that of the 10 galaxies, nine have central black holes that are indeed resting within their respective galaxies. But one is not! And that’s galaxy, J0437+2456.
Where exactly is this happening?
Galaxy J0437+2456 is located 230 million light-years away from Earth. The black hole sits at the center of this galaxy. For perspective, that’s equivalent to circling our earth 54,000 trillion times!
Why is it happening?
The ‘why’ behind this discovery has turned into the most important question now. So far the research team behind this discovery is not sure about it, though they do have two theories:
“We may be observing the aftermath of two supermassive black holes merging,” said Jim Condon, a member astronomer of the research team involved in the study. “The result of such a merger can cause the newborn black hole to recoil, and we may be watching it in the act of recoiling or as it settles down again.”
The other possibility being,
“Despite every expectation that they really ought to be out there in some abundance, scientists have had a hard time identifying clear examples of binary supermassive black holes,” Pesce says. “What we could be seeing in the galaxy J0437+2456 is one of the black holes in such a pair, with the other remaining hidden to our radio observations.”
Further observations will ultimately pin down the true cause of this supermassive black hole’s unusual motion.
How does it affect us?
The universe began with a Big Bang. It gave birth to dust, stars, galaxies, and even black holes. As we know it, Black holes suck everything inside, which makes them the opposite of a Big Bang. Any discovery about black holes can be a key to understanding the existence of everything.
Understanding the birth, death, and lifecycle of a black hole can give us answers to life, the universe, and everything else.
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