spaceSpace and Physics

Scientists Have Discovered A Supermassive Black Hole By Chance


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockApr 29 2016, 09:13 UTC
48 Scientists Have Discovered A Supermassive Black Hole By Chance
Most galaxies are thought to have a supermassive black hole at their core. Note: This image is not the new discovery, which hasn’t been imaged yet. NASA/ESA/STScI

Usually, finding something by chance consists of discovering a few coins stuck behind the couch. But scientists in Australia managed to stumble across a supermassive black hole with a mass around 3 billion times larger than the Sun.

It was originally thought the site of the supermassive black hole was a single galaxy called IRAS 20100-4156. But as it turns out, it is actually three spiral galaxies that are in the midst of a collision about 1.8 billion light-years away from Earth. In this process, the black holes at the center of each galaxy merge together to form one monster black hole.


The discovery was made when scientists from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) were testing out their new radio telescope, the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, in Murchison, Australia. As part of the test observation, Dr. Lisa Harvey-Smith from CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science was examining the IRAS 20100-4156 galaxy and measuring it’s maser – a stimulated emission of microwaves sometimes observed in gas clouds in interstellar space.

"[I] thought it would be quite a mundane thing," Dr. Harvey-Smith told ABC Australia.

However, something about their readings didn’t quite add up. After confirming with the Australia Telescope Compact Array at Narrabri, the researchers found that the maser was getting swirled around the center of the galaxy twice as fast as expected, at over 600 kilometers (375 miles) a second.


"This very fast motion of the gas tells us about how massive the black hole is," said Dr. Harvey-Smith.

Even in the endless depths of space, the formation of a supermassive black hole is a pretty big deal. In these events, the collision of galaxies creates an astronomically high rate of star formation, in what is known as a “starburst.”

This chance discovery has been published in a paper for the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The scientists say that this discovery may provide further insight into how galaxies evolve.


"We want to know whether galaxy collisions, and the formation of supermassive black holes, have really driven the star formation rates that we see in galaxies and how that's changed throughout time," Dr. Harvey-Smith said.

[H/T: ABC Australia]

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