NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has accidentally captured images of a “runaway” black hole barreling through space, leaving behind a contrail of newborn stars.
The black hole, weighing as much as 20 million suns, is traveling through space so fast that if it were in our solar system, it could travel from Earth to the Moon in 14 minutes, according to NASA.
An artist’s impression of a runaway supermassive black hole. (NASA)
The 200,000-light-year “contrail” of stars that the black hole is leaving behind is approximately twice the diameter of the Milky Way. NASA said the phenomenon is likely the result of a game of “galactic billiards among three massive black holes.
The new stars are forming as the black hole is plowing into the gas in front of it to trigger new formations along a narrow corridor. NASA said the sighting is unprecedented.
“What we’re seeing is the aftermath. Like the wake of a ship we’re seeing the wake behind the black hole,” Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, said in a statement. “The trail must have lots of new stars, given that it is almost half as bright as the host galaxy it is linked to.”
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Van Dokkum said it was “pure serendipity” that researchers stumbled across the finding. According to NASA, van Dokkum was looking for globular star clusters in a nearby dwarf galaxy.
“I was just scanning through the Hubble image and then I noticed that we have a little streak. I immediately thought, ‘oh, a cosmic ray hitting the camera detector and causing a linear imaging artifact,’” van Dokkum said. “When we eliminated cosmic rays we realized it was still there. It didn’t look like anything we’ve seen before.”
Spectroscopic observations reveal it is a 200,000-light-year-long chain of young blue stars. (NASA)
Van Dokkum investigated further and concluded that they were looking at the aftermath of a black hole flying through a halo of gas surrounding the host galaxy.
NASA believes the “intergalactic skyrocket” is likely the culmination of multiple collisions of supermassive black holes – with the first two galaxies merging around 50 million years ago.
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The team’s findings were published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on April 6.