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We may be seeing the activation of a massive black hole in real time

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Five years ago, a galaxy started shining brighter than ever and hasn't stopped. Now scientists have a possible explanation for this phenomenon. According to them, for the first time it was possible to observe the activation of a black hole in real time.

The galaxy named SDSS1335+0728, located 300 million light-years away in the constellation of Virgo, suddenly became exceptionally bright in December 2019.

– Let's imagine that we are observing a distant object galaxy for many years and she always seems calm and inactive. Suddenly, its core begins to show dramatic changes in brightness, unlike any event observed before, said Paula Sánchez Sáez, an astronomer at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Germany, and the first author of the work accepted for publication in the journal “Astronomy & Astrophysics”.

As explained in a statement from the European Southern Observatory on Tuesday, some phenomena, including supernova explosions and tidal disruptions (which occur when a star hits too close to a black hole and falls apart), can cause a galaxy to suddenly flare up, but the changes in brightness caused by this last from several dozen to a maximum of several hundred days. Meanwhile, the galaxy SDSS1335+0728 has been getting brighter for almost five years.

Real-time black hole awakening

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Scientists took a closer look at it using data from several space-based and ground-based observatories, including ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT). As just reported, “we are witnessing changes never before seen in this galaxy.”

Observations show that SDSS1335+0728 now emits significantly more ultraviolet light in the visible and infrared ranges. In addition, in February it also began emitting X-rays. “Such behavior is unprecedented,” commented Sánchez Sáez.

Galaxy SDSS1335+0728 – artistic visionIT/M. Kornmesser

– The best explanation for this phenomenon is that we see the galactic core becoming active. If this is indeed the case, this is the first time we have seen the activation of a massive black hole in real time. Such a process has never been observed before, said study co-author Lorena Hernández García from the University of Valparaiso in Chile. A massive black hole is one that has a mass of over one hundred thousand times that of the Sun.

As we read, “previous studies reported that inactive galaxies become active after several years, but here for the first time the process itself – the awakening of a black hole – was observed in real time.”

Artist's impression showing the two stages of formation of a disk of gas and dust around the massive black hole at the center of the galaxy SDSS1335+0728ESO/M. Kornmesser

As one of the co-authors of the work, Claudio Ricci from Chile's Diego Portales University, said, “such a thing could happen to our own Sgr A.” This is the massive black hole Sagittarius A, located in the center of the Milky Way. However, it is not known how likely it is that such a situation will occur.

The authors of the study noted that further observations are needed to rule out other explanations for the phenomenon occurring in this galaxy. It is possible that an “unusually slow tidal disruption” occurred, and if so, “it would be the longest and weakest event of its type.”

“Regardless of the nature of these changes, the galaxy provides valuable information on how the black hole grows and evolves,” concluded Sánchez Sáez.

Main photo source: IT/M. Kornmesser

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