Never seen before: NASA says supermassive black hole is leaving behind a trail of stars

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TORONTO — A supermassive black hole darting through space has left behind a trail of newborn stars twice the length of the Milky Way, a phenomenon researchers say they’ve never seen until now.

The researchers detail the discovery, which was captured serendipitously by the Hubble Space Telescope and announced on April 6, in a paper published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

They say the trail of newborn stars is 200,000 light-years across, while the runaway black hole weighs as much as 20 million suns and is traveling so fast that it can go from Earth to the Moon in 14 minutes.

“It’s pure serendipity that we found it,” Peter van Dokkum of Yale University said in a press release.

Van Dokkum says he was looking for globular clusters in a nearby dwarf galaxy when he noticed a small line.

“I immediately thought, ‘Oh, a cosmic ray hits the camera detector and causes a linear imaging artifact.'” When we removed the cosmic rays, we realized they were still there. They didn’t look like anything we’d seen before.”

The researchers say the black hole may be moving so fast that it heats the gas in front of it and, in turn, creates new star formations.

It could also be the result of radiation from an accretion disk around the black hole. An accretion disk is a disk of hot gas orbiting a black hole that serves as the main source of light.

“We think we’re seeing wakefulness behind the black hole as gas cools and is able to form stars. So, we’re looking at star formation behind the black hole,” van Dokkum said.

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“What we see are the consequences. Like a vigil behind a ship we see beyond a black hole.”

This is an artist's impression of a runaway supermassive black hole that has been ejected from its host galaxy as a result of a conflict between it and two other black holes.  This hastens the birth of hot blue stars.
This is an artist’s impression of a runaway supermassive black hole that has been ejected from its host galaxy as a result of a conflict between it and two other black holes. This hastens the birth of hot blue stars. (Image: NASA, ESA, Leah Hustak, STScI)

As for how the black hole was able to travel at such a high speed, the researchers say it could be the result of three supermassive black holes colliding with each other.

They say two galaxies likely merged about 50 million years ago, sending two supermassive black holes to their centers and then orbiting each other.

Then came another galaxy with its own black hole, all three orbiting each other until one finally flew by.

The researchers say that follow-up observations with the James Webb Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory will confirm this theory.

Meanwhile, researchers said the upcoming Romanian Nancy Grace Space Telescope, described as Hubble’s wide-eyed cousin, could reveal more star streaks elsewhere in the universe.

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Michael Lee, CTVNews.ca writer

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