A study published Wednesday in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society has shown that a massive black hole the size of 34 billion times the mass of our sun has been recorded to consume a sun's worth of material each day. First discovered in May 2018 by the SkyMapper telescope at the Australian National University's Siding Spring Observatory, this new discovery shows clues about the origin of the universe.
"It's the biggest black hole that's been weighed in this early period of the Universe," said Christopher Onken, lead study author and research fellow at the Australian National University's Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, in a statement. "We're seeing it at a time when the universe was only 1.2 billion years old, less than 10 per cent of its current age."
It dwarfs the supermassive black hole called Sagittarius A* in our own Milky Way galaxy.
"The black hole's mass is about 8,000 times bigger than the black hole in the centre of the Milky Way," Onken said. "If the Milky Way's black hole wanted to grow that fat, it would have to swallow two thirds of all the stars in our Galaxy."
The black hole, known as J2157, exists more than 12 billion light-years back in the distant universe. Its incredible size has stunned astronomers, who are are trying to understand how such massive black holes could evolve during the early days of the universe. The researchers are currently searching for massive black holes like this one to understand how they have been created and how they have expanded. "With such an enormous black hole, we're also excited to see what we can learn about the galaxy in which it's growing," Onken said. "Is this galaxy one of the behemoths of the early Universe, or did the black hole just swallow up an extraordinary amount of its surroundings? We'll have to keep digging to figure that out."
"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," said Christian Wolf, an author on both the 2018 and new studies and associate professor at Australian National University, when the black hole was first discovered two years ago.
"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. It would likely make life on Earth impossible with the huge amounts of X-rays emanating from it."
"We knew we were onto a very massive black hole when we realised its fast growth rate," said Fuyan Bian, study coauthor and staff astronomer at the European Southern Observatory, in a statement.
"How much black holes can swallow depends on how much mass they already have. So, for this one to be devouring matter at such a high rate, we thought it could become a new record holder. And now we know."
This is an exciting discovery for astronomers and other star gazers and will hopefully lead us to a better understanding of the origin of our universe.