Supermassive black holes are not particularly known for setting out on trips across the universe, although scientists have long speculated this was possible. A celestial object found some 230 million light-years from Earth has now caught the attention of astronomers at the US Centre for Astrophysics. The object in question is a massive black hole at the centre of the galaxy J0437+2456 that appears to be moving at some 110,000mph.
After completing a survey of 10 distant galaxies and their central black holes, the researchers found all but one of them were static.
Their findings were presented on March 12 in The Astrophysical Journal.
The researchers believe this is the clearest case yet of a supermassive black hole on the move.
And this is no easy task, according to the study’s lead author, Dominic Pesce.
He said: “We don’t expect the majority of the supermassive black holes to be moving; they’re usually content to just sit around.
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“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 astronomer and his colleagues have been trying to spot this rare phenomenon for the last five years.
For their latest research, they asked themselves whether black holes have the same velocities as their home galaxies.
Dr Pesce added: “We expect them to have the same velocity.
“If they don’t, that implies the black hole has been disturbed.”
The researchers focused their efforts on black holes that had accretion disks rich in water.
Accretion disks are made up of the material that gets sucked in towards a black hole.
As the water circles the black hole at great speeds – like water circling the drain – it emits a laser-like beam of radio light called a maser.
Using a network of radio telescopes on Earth, scientists can precisely determine a black hole’s velocity by studying the radio beam.
The findings in J0437+2456 were then confirmed by the Arecibo and Gemini Observatories.
The astronomers determined the black hole is moving inside of its galaxy at speeds of about 110,000 miles per hours.
However, it is unclear what exactly set the black hole flying in the first place.
One theory suggests the black hole is the product of two supermassive black holes merging into one.
Jim Condon, a radio astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, said: “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.”
A more exciting theory, according to Dr Pesce, is the black hole is one of a pair.
He said: “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.
“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.”