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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Black hole in distant galaxy awakens in real time

A galaxy has grown brighter for over four years. It's the first time the awakening of a massive black hole has been observed in real time.

(CN) — A massive black hole in a distant galaxy has suddenly become active, transforming it from a quiet neighbor into a brilliantly shining celestial object.

In 2019, the galaxy SDSS1335+0728, situated 300 million light-years away in the Virgo constellation, unexpectedly started shining brighter than ever before.

This event captured astronomers' attention, leading them to conduct further investigation at advanced observatories like those at the European Southern Observatory.

Findings published Tuesday in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics reveal the real-time awakening of a massive black hole.

"Imagine observing a distant galaxy for years, and it always seemed calm and inactive," said Paula Sánchez Sáez, an astronomer at the European Southern Observatory in Germany and lead author of the study, in a press release. "Suddenly, its core starts showing dramatic changes in brightness, unlike anything we've seen before."

Researchers now identify the distant galaxy, once thought ordinary, as having an active galactic nucleus. This change came after it brightened unexpectedly in December 2019, signaling the activation of a massive black hole at its core.

According to researchers, phenomena such as supernova explosions or tidal disruption events, where a star is torn apart by a black hole, can temporarily illuminate galaxies. However, these events typically last only a few dozen to a few hundred days.

The galaxy SDSS1335+0728 has continued to grow brighter for over four years.

In February 2024, the research team observed that the galaxy began emitting significantly more light across ultraviolet, optical, and infrared wavelengths.

"The most plausible explanation for this phenomenon is that we are witnessing the onset of activity in the galaxy's core," Lorena Hernández García, co-author of the study from the Millennium Institute of Astrophysics and the University of Valparaíso in Chile, said in the press release. “If confirmed, this would be the first time we've observed the activation of a massive black hole in real time."

While previous studies have reported galaxies transitioning from inactive to active states over years, this marks the first time researchers have witnessed the awakening process of a black hole itself in real time.

According to the research team, more observations are needed to eliminate other possibilities.

One option is a very slow tidal disruption event, which, if proven, would be the longest and faintest event of its kind ever seen, or possibly a completely new phenomenon.

"Regardless of the cause behind these variations, this galaxy offers valuable insights into how black holes grow and evolve," Sánchez Sáez said in a statement.

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