A supermassive black hole with a mass about three million times more than the sun is wandering through a distant galaxy at speeds of 110,000 miles per hour.
Researchers at the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics observed the restless black hole in the galaxy J0437+2456, which sits 230 million light-years from Earth.
The team is unclear why the black hole is moving, as they are typically stationary, but propose it is either a merger of two or an undetected second black hole in the observation.
‘We may be observing the aftermath of two supermassive black holes merging,’ said Jim Condon, a radio astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory who was 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.’
Scientists have long theorized that the cosmic wonders can move through space, but catching them in the act has proved near impossible.
However, the latest discover is ‘the clearest case to date of a supermassive black hole in motion.’
‘We don’t expect the majority of supermassive black holes to be moving; they’re usually content to just sit around,’ said Dominic Pesce, an astronomer at the Center for Astrophysics who led the study.
‘They’re just so heavy that it’s tough to get them going.’
‘Consider how much more difficult it is to kick a bowling ball into motion than it is to kick a soccer ball — realizing that in this case, the ‘bowling ball’ is several million times the mass of our Sun. That’s going to require a pretty mighty kick.’
The team began this work by surveying 10 distant galaxies in which supermassive black holes sit at the core and specifically those containing water within their accretion disks — the spiral structures that spin inward towards the black hole.
As the water orbits around the black hole, it produces a laser-like beam of radio light known as a maser.
When studied with a combined network of radio antennas using a technique known as very long baseline interferometry (VLBI), masers can help measure a black hole’s velocity very precisely, Pesce says.
This allowed the team to narrow down nine out of the 10 supermassive black hole were stationary, which left just one that could possibly be wandering.
The black hole is located at the center of galaxy J0437+2456 and is moving along at a speed of about 110,000 miles per hour.
Although the team speculates the motion could be the aftermath of a merger or a previously undetected second black hole, there is also the possibility that it may be a binary system.
‘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 because of its lack of maser emission.’
Further observations, however, will ultimately be needed to pin down the true cause of this supermassive black hole’s unusual motion.