Runaway Black Hole: Hubble Uncovers a Trail of Starbirth Left in its Wake

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Hubble Telescope captures stunning images of a supermassive black hole speeding through interstellar space, leaving behind a never-before-seen trail of newly born stars.

An invisible monster rampages through interstellar space at an astonishing speed, leaving a trail of newly born stars in its wake. In a groundbreaking discovery, NASA’s Hubble Telescope has captured images of a supermassive black hole on the run, speeding through interstellar space so fast that it could cover the distance between Earth and the Moon in just 14 minutes (about 384,000 kilometers or 238,855 miles). With a mass equivalent to 20 million suns, this invisible monster has left behind an unprecedented trail of new stars stretching 200,000 light-years (approximately 1.892 trillion kilometers or 1.175 trillion miles), twice the diameter of our Milky Way galaxy.

This unparalleled phenomenon is likely the result of an odd and rare cosmic billiards game between three massive black holes. Instead of devouring stars in its path, the runaway black hole plows through interstellar gas, triggering the formation of new stars in a narrow corridor. The black hole’s speed is so high that it cannot stop to “eat” stars along the way.

The black hole is located at one end of the column of stars, which extends back to its home galaxy. At the furthest tip of the column, a bright knot of ionized oxygen has been detected. Researchers believe this is due to either the gas in interstellar space being compressed and heated by the black hole’s motion or radiation from an accretion disk surrounding the black hole.

Pieter van Dokkum, from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, explains, “We think we’re seeing a wake behind the black hole, where the gas is cooling down and can form stars. So we’re observing star formation following the black hole.” The trail of stars must be quite recent, as it is nearly half as bright as the galaxy it is linked to.

This amazing discovery was a stroke of luck for van Dokkum and his team, who were searching for globular star clusters in a nearby dwarf galaxy. The researcher notes that this phenomenon is “quite astounding, very, very bright, and very unusual,” leading them to conclude they were observing the aftermath of a black hole passing through a gas halo around the host galaxy.

The next step is to conduct follow-up observations with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory to confirm the black hole explanation. Additionally, NASA’s future Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope could uncover more of these rare and unlikely “starbursts” elsewhere in the universe thanks to its ability to perform wide-angle observations with Hubble’s exquisite resolution. This may require the use of machine learning and algorithms capable of identifying specific and unusual shapes amid a vast amount of astronomical data, according to van Dokkum.

The research paper will be published on April 6th in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The Hubble Space Telescope is an international cooperation project between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble’s scientific operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, in Washington, D.C.

NASA Goddard

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