The fastest-growing black hole in 9 billion years could have been found, say astronomers led by Australia

Astronomers believe they have discovered the fastest-growing black hole in the last 9 billion years.

The supermassive black hole consumes the equivalent of one Earth every second and has a 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 in the Milky Way.

Lead researcher Dr Christopher Onken of the National University of Australia said the supermassive black hole was “about halfway across the universe”.

“The light we are seeing from this growing black hole has been traveling to us for about 7 billion years,” he said. The big bang occurred about 13.8 billion years ago.

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

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

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

“People have been looking for these growing black holes since the early 1960s,” he said, adding that about 880,000 had been discovered and cataloged so far. “The fact that something so brilliant has escaped the many, many searches that have been carried out over the years is quite remarkable.”

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Why J1144 has eluded discovery for so long may be in part due to its position in the night sky. “Historically, people have avoided looking too close to the Milky Way plan because there are so many stars, so many pollutants, that it would be very difficult to find anything further,” Onken said.

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

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

A parallel comparison of the sky from photographic plates observed with a 20 cm telescope (one hour exposure) in 1901 and the 1.3 meter telescope of the SkyMapper Southern Sky Survey using a CCD camera ( and a 100-second exhibition) in 2018. Photography: Christopher Onken / National University of Australia

Dr. Fiona Panther, a gravitational wave astronomer at the University of Western Australia who did not participate in the research, described the black holes as “very, very messy dining rooms … if there is a lot of gas and dust that s ‘push the black hole, I’d actually spit a lot.

“In general, it will be spit out in massive jets … quasars are a particular type of black hole jet,” he said.

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

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

“If you take the sun and shrink it to a black hole … we would be in a perpetual night, but the motions of the planets around the sun would not change much because the mass has not changed.”

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

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

J1144 was first discovered by Adrian Lucy, a doctoral student, while looking for nearby pairs of binary stars in the Milky Way.

The research is not yet peer-reviewed; has been published as a prepress and sent to the Australian Astronomical Society Publications.

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