We may be witnessing the activation of a massive black hole in real time

Five years ago, a galaxy began to shine brighter than ever and it hasn’t stopped. Now scientists have a possible explanation for this phenomenon. According to them, for the first time it was possible to monitor the activation of a black hole in real time.

The galaxy called SDSS1335+0728, located 300 million light-years away in the constellation Virgo, became exceptionally bright in December 2019.

– Let’s imagine that we have been observing a distant galaxy for many years and it always appears quiet and inactive. “Suddenly, its core began to show radical changes in brightness, unlike any event observed before,” said Paula Sanchez Saez, an astronomer at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Germany, and first author of the work accepted for publication in the journal. “Astronomy and Astrophysics”.

As a statement from the European Southern Observatory explained on Tuesday, some phenomena, including supernova explosions and tidal disturbances (which occur when a star strikes close to a black hole and collapses), can cause the galaxy to suddenly flare up, but the changes in brightness caused by This is from several tens to several hundred days maximum. Meanwhile, the galaxy SDSS1335+0728 has become brighter in nearly five years.

Real time black hole awakening

Scientists took a closer look at it using data from several space-based and ground-based observatories, including the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). As we just mentioned, “we are witnessing unprecedented changes in this galaxy.”

Observations show that SDSS1335+0728 now emits significantly more UV radiation in the visible and infrared ranges. In addition, in February it also began issuing X-rays. “Such behavior is unprecedented,” Sanchez Saez commented.

Galaxy SDSS1335+0728 – Artistic visionIT/M. Kornmessera

The best explanation for this phenomenon is that we see the galactic nucleus becoming active. If this is indeed the case, this is the first time we have seen a massive black hole activate in real time. Such a process has never been observed before, said study co-author Lorena Hernandez García from Valparaiso University in Chile. A supermassive black hole is one whose mass is more than one hundred thousand times the mass of the sun.

As we read, “Previous studies have reported that dormant galaxies become active after several years, but here for the first time the process itself – the awakening of a black hole – has been observed in real time.”

An artist’s impression showing the two stages of formation of a disk of gas and dust around the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy SDSS1335+0728Information Technology/M. Kornmesser

“Something like this could happen to Sagittarius A,” said one of the work’s co-authors, Claudio Ricci of the University of Diego Portales in Chile. This is the massive black hole Sagittarius A, located at the center of the Milky Way. However, it is not known how likely such a situation is to occur.

The study’s authors noted that more observations are needed to rule out other explanations for the phenomenon occurring in the galaxy SDSS1335+0728. An “unusually slow tidal disturbance” likely occurred, and if it did, “it would be the longest and weakest event of its kind.” “Regardless of the nature of these changes, the galaxy provides valuable information about how the black hole grows and evolves,” Sanchez Saez concluded.

Main image source: IT/M. Kornmessera

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