June 8, 2023

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How a giant black hole hurtles through the universe and creates a stream of stars

How a giant black hole hurtles through the universe and creates a stream of stars

George Vanhill

When I look up at the starry sky on a beautiful spring evening, a lot of it is familiar. For example, I see the distinctive “W” of the constellation Cassiopeia, a pot of the Big Dipper or the bright spot of our neighboring planet Venus. Then get a star map and you can even find very precise celestial locations where you, as an amateur, can point a telescope to see galaxies or vent gas nebulae.

All of this gives a sense that we know the night sky a bit. That we numbered everything, gave it names and checked it in our star charts. However, this is a misconception, as it turned out again recently, at NASA mentioned for something special. Something the Hubble Space Telescope has seen deep in the universe with more sharpness than the human eye.

One of the images from the telescope showed a small streak of light. Such an unrelated object that scientists initially thought they were dealing with an atom, an anomaly, perhaps a stray sliver of cosmic rays that hit Hubble’s cameras. Until that streak turns out to be something very special: a supermassive black hole racing through space with a stream of stars in its wake.

They write that this is the first time that scientists have seen a massive wormhole moving single-handedly through the universe in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters. You usually find such cosmic monsters in the middle of galaxies. Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, also contains one: Saggitarius A*, imaged last year by the Event Horizon Telescope. Astronomers have long believed that when two galaxies collide, a supermassive black hole may explode inside them. No one has ever seen anything like this, but now it seems to be true.

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One of the lines in the image appears to be a jumbled black holeImage by NASA, European Space Agency, Peter van Dokkum, Joseph DiPasquale

This little dash is really huge, with all the amazing numbers associated with cosmic discoveries. For example, a black hole has a mass of twenty million suns and moves through the universe at a speed of 5.7 million kilometers per hour. So fast that it can fly from Earth to the Moon in 14 minutes.

Such a monster moving through the universe at a lethal pace is a terrifying thought, but at the same time it turns out to be a source of cosmic creation. When a black hole collides with the gas in front of it, it is compressed in such a way that new stars are formed. This is the source of the stream of stars tugging at the giant: a tail 200,000 light-years long, twice the diameter of the Milky Way.

This strange sight takes place in a small part of the night sky, somewhere among all those familiar stars and planets. Clarifying that what we see there is really just a tiny precursor of everything else that the universe hides from the naked eye.

About the author
Georg van Hall writes about astronomy, physics and space travel for De Volkskrant. He has published books on everything from the universe to the smallest building blocks of reality.