Yale Researchers Discover Supermassive Black Hole Hurtling Through Space at Unprecedented Speed

A team of researchers at Yale University have discovered a supermassive black hole that appears to be hurtling through space at an unprecedented speed, leaving a trail of stars in its wake.[0] The black hole weighs as much as 20 million suns and is travelling so fast that if it were in our solar system, it would travel between the Earth and the Moon in just 14 minutes.[1] The discovery was made by accident when lead paper author Pieter van Dokkum was looking for globular star clusters in a nearby dwarf galaxy. Instead, he saw what appeared to be artifacts on the images, and said it was “pure serendipity that we stumbled across it.”[2] Professor Van Dokkum stumbled upon the distinctive occurrence accidentally while searching for globular star clusters in a nearby dwarf galaxy. Instead, he saw what appeared to be artifacts on the images, and said it was “pure serendipity that we stumbled across it.”[2]

Initially believed to be a flaw in the camera's imaging, an unusual linear feature was captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. However, upon further spectroscopic observations, it was discovered to be a chain of young blue stars spanning over 200,000 light years.[3] Located at the lower left end of the bridge is a supermassive black hole that was expelled from the upper right region of the galaxy.[3] Leaving a trail of young blue stars, the black hole compressed the gas behind it.[0]

“We think we’re seeing a wake behind the black hole where the gas cools and is able to form stars. So, we’re looking at star formation trailing the black hole,” explained van Dokkum. The aftermath is what we are witnessing, similar to the wake trailing behind a ship, we are observing the wake of the black hole.

Should additional observations confirm it, the discovery would validate a 50-year-old hypothesis that proposed the presence of runaway black holes. In the 1970s, scientists pondered the impact of galaxy collisions on black hole formation and development, giving rise to the concept of a rogue black hole.

“We’ve known for a long time that supermassive black holes exist and it had been predicted for about 50 years that they could sometimes be ejected from galaxies. If confirmed, this would be the first evidence of a runaway supermassive black hole, proving this prediction,” said van Dokkum. “Something like this has never been seen anywhere in the universe.”[3]

The researchers note that further research—including through use of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory—will be necessary to confirm their findings.[2] As they continue their research, they also recognize that there could be alternative explanations for the discovery.[2]

0. “A runaway black hole? Hubble captures an unusual feature in deep space” Devdiscourse, 6 Apr. 2023, https://www.devdiscourse.com/article/science-environment/2408416-a-runaway-black-hole-hubble-captures-an-unusual-feature-in-deep-space

1. “‘Runaway’ black hole tearing through space is like nothing science has ever seen before” Daily Star, 6 Apr. 2023, https://www.dailystar.co.uk/news/weird-news/runaway-black-hole-tearing-through-29648400

2. “A ‘slingshot scenario': On the trail of a runaway supermassive black hole” Yale News, 6 Apr. 2023, https://news.yale.edu/2023/04/06/slingshot-scenario-trail-runaway-supermassive-black-hole

3. “A strange streak of young stars is evidence of a runaway supermassive black hole, study finds” Phys.org, 6 Apr. 2023, https://phys.org/news/2023-04-strange-streak-young-stars-evidence.html

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