Spotted: Runaway black hole leaving behind a trail of stars

The discovery still has to be confirmed.
Loukia Papadopoulos
An illustration of a runaway black hole.jpg
An illustration of a runaway black hole.

NASA, ESA, Leah Hustak (STScI) 

Yale and NASA astronomers have been trying to spot a “runaway” black hole. According to statements by the organizations published on Thursday, this refers to “a supermassive black hole that was catapulted away from the center of its host galaxy by the gravitational force of multiple black holes interacting at once.”

The potential rogue black hole was detected in Hubble Telescope images.

If further observations confirm the celestial object's discovery, it could provide weight to a 50-year-old theory.

“This was a bit of serendipity,” said Yale’s Pieter van Dokkum, lead astronomer for the multi-institution research team. 

“We noticed an almost straight line of light in the Hubble images that pointed to the heart of a galaxy. As we had never seen something like that before, we decided to investigate it a month later with the Low-Resolution Imaging Spectrometer on the Keck I telescope.”

The researchers speculate that the event resulted from three black holes that came together about 40 million years ago in the aftermath of the collisions of their host galaxies. This galactic pileup unleashed solid gravitational forces that saw one of the black holes speeding away from the " accident scene.”

A velocity of 4 million miles per hour

Now, the researchers estimate that the mass of the black hole is as much as the mass of 10 million suns, and it is racing through space with a velocity of 4 million miles per hour. It drags behind it a line of gas that is 200 light-years long. 

The idea of a runaway black hole first originated in the 1970s.

“It was very exciting to piece this puzzle together,” said van Dokkum, the Sol Goldman Family Professor of Astronomy and professor of physics in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the new study's first author. 

“Even though Hubble has been around for many years now, it can still find entirely new phenomena in the night sky.”

However, more research will be necessary to confirm the astronomers' findings, including using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory. They also acknowledge in their statement the possibility of other interpretations for the discovery.

The new study will be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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