Scientists are witnessing the awakening of a black hole

We usually think of black holes as monstrous entities that destroy everything. But while they have incredibly destructive power, they only really destroy things that get too close. Most galaxies have a supermassive black hole at their center. Ours in the Milky Way is called Sagittarius A*. But scientists captured some never-before-seen views of a black hole, as described in a recent study published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

A galaxy known as SDSS1335+0728 showed unprecedented activity in late 2019. Specifically, it began to glow, remaining luminous for years even though observed galaxies that glow typically do so for weeks at most.

Using archival data and new observations from several facilities, including the X-shooter instrument on ESO’s VLT in Chile’s Atacama Desert, the scientists behind the study concluded that the galaxy has an active galactic nucleus (AGN). This means the galaxy has an active supermassive black hole at its core, which emits bright jets and winds to illuminate the celestial feature for Earth-bound astronomers.

“These giant monsters are usually sleeping and not directly visible,” co-author Claudio Ricci of Diego Portales University in Chile said in a statement. “In the case of SDSS1335+0728, we were able to observe the wake of the massive black hole, [which] suddenly began to enjoy the available gas in its surroundings, becoming very bright.”

There are other possibilities for what this could be, including entirely new phenomena never seen before in the universe. Co-author Lorena Hernández García, from MAS and the University of Valparaíso in Chile, said that if the data from this study is correct, “this would be the first time we see the activation of a massive black hole in real time.”

Moreover, the galactic core is getting brighter. While it’s about 300 million light-years away in the constellation Virgo, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on to see how it behaves in the future.

Galaxies orbiting an AGN are more unstable than those with inactive black holes at their center. Blazars, for example, are galaxies whose center ejects jets of ionizing matter that fly through space at nearly the speed of light. Quasars are even more intense, emitting matter so powerful that it can destroy small stars. Although the origin of these phenomena remains mysterious, a 2023 study in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society hypothesized based on recent data that they may be caused by galactic collisions.

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