Astronomers Spotted a Colossal Black Hole Eruption That's 16 Full Moons Wide

Stand back.
Brad Bergan

The scariest things in the universe can deepen our grasp of everything.

Astronomers have captured a most unsettling image of radio emissions from the closest actively feeding supermassive black hole to our planet, according to a recent study from the journal Nature Astronomy.

And, from our vantage point on Earth, the supermassive black hole's unconscionably large eruption spans the width of 16 full moons. Sixteen!

A supermassive black hole swallows up matter with the force of 55 million suns

The image depicts radio emissions of large amounts of material ejected from the black hole at speeds approaching that of light, with gigantic balls of plasma stretching out more than one million light-years from the center of its home galaxy, Centaurus A. This galaxy is roughly 12 million light-years from our world, and is the fifth-brightest galaxy in the observable sky. But in the center of this galaxy is a supermassive black hole actively feeding with its irresistible force of 55 million suns. The massive cosmic maw swallows gas, dust, and various other doomed material locked in terminal orbit, which is then ejected in the form of instant-death jets the reach deep into intergalactic space, leading to massive bubbles that we can even see from Earth (of course, not exactly with the naked eye).

The galaxy surrounding the black hole is just a tiny patch at the center of the image, and the dots lighting the backdrop aren't stars, but other, mostly similar galaxies. But the little dots in the foreground are nearer stars, located in our Milky Way. To capture the haunting image, the astronomers used the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope, located in Western Australia, where radio interference is slim to none, and the view of the sky is awe-inspiring. But there's more to the image than radio emissions. It also includes X-ray and optical observations, said Astronomer Benjamin McKinley of Curtin University in Australia, who's also the lead author of the recent study, in a statement.

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A monstrous black hole corroborates an emerging theory

In the image, you can see radio plasma from the black hole emitted in blue, and it seems to be interacting with very hot gas that's emitting X-rays in orange, with cold neutral hydrogen apparent in a purple that feels somehow ominous. The red shows H-alpha spectral lines that we observe when hydrogen loses electrons. "Previous radio observations could not handle the extreme brightness of the jets and details of the larger area surrounding the galaxy were distorted, but our new image overcomes these limitations," added McKinley, in the same statement.

McKinley added that this galaxy seems brighter at its core, where energy is more active, and dense. But as this energy is dispersed outward in the galaxy, it grows fainter. But as the edges of this galaxy fade, our science grows. Massimo Gaspari, an astrophysicist from Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics, said this recent study helped corroborate an emerging theory called "chaotic cold accretion" (CCA). "In this model, clouds of cold gas condense in the galactic halo and rain down onto the central regions, feeding the supermassive black hole," said Gaspari, in the statement. "Triggered by this rain, the black hole vigorously reacts by launching energy back via radio jets that inflate the spectacular lobes we see in the MWA image. This study is one of the first to probe in such detail the multiphase CCA 'weather' over the full range of scales." So remember, the bigger and more unconscionably crude and violent nature appears, the deeper we peer into the mysteries of the universe, which helps our most fundamental theories grow stronger.