NASA has discovered a runaway black hole that is speeding through space and leaving behind a trail of stars that has never been seen before. The supermassive black hole, which weighs as much as 20 million suns, would be able to travel from Earth to the Moon in just 14 minutes if it were in our solar system. The star trail that it has left behind is 200,000 light years long, twice the size of our Milky Way galaxy, and was unintentionally captured by NASA’s Hubble Telescope.
Pieter van Dokkum, an astronomer at Yale University, made the discovery and described it as “pure serendipity.” He noticed a remarkably bright knot of ionized oxygen at the outermost tip of the column that was left behind by the black hole. The star trail was “quite astonishing, very, very bright and very unusual” and looked like the wake of a ship.
Van Dokkum believes that the trail of stars was created when the black hole collided with the gas in front of it, triggering new star formation along a narrow corridor. Rather than consuming stars, the black hole is plowing into gas to create new ones. According to researchers, the collision between three black holes most likely created the supermassive black hole.
Before another galaxy connected with its own black hole, scientists believe that two of the black holes may have fused 50 million years ago. Then one of the black holes was ejected from its home galaxy, with two black holes going in one direction and one black hole traveling in the other.
The black hole’s collision with the gas in front of it is what creates the stars. Researchers believe that gas is being shocked and heated from the motion of the black hole hitting the gas or from radiation from an accretion disk around the black hole. Van Dokkum said that “how it works exactly is not really known.”
Van Dokkum added that the discovery was “pure serendipity” as he was looking for globular star clusters in a nearby dwarf galaxy when he stumbled across it. He initially thought that it was a cosmic ray hitting the camera detector and causing a linear imaging artifact. When they eliminated cosmic rays, they realized that it was still there and that it didn’t look like anything they had seen before.
The discovery of this runaway black hole is significant because it provides new insights into how supermassive black holes are formed and how they interact with the gas and stars around them. Researchers plan to conduct additional observations to support their theory about the collision between three black holes creating this supermassive black hole and the star trail that it left behind.