A ravenous black hole created the universe’s brightest object, study says


Astronomers have identified what could be the brightest, most luminous object in the universe — a quasar that emits light 500 trillion times more intense than that of our sun.

Quasars are dazzling whirlpools of fast-moving, ultra-hot gas produced by giant black holes — and this particular quasar is driven by the fastest-growing black hole known to humans, one that is devouring the equivalent of one sun per day, according to the European Southern Observatory.

What’s more, this remarkable object was “hiding in plain sight” for several decades before it was discovered, the observatory said, adding that it was so bright it was initially classified as a star not too far from Earth.

In fact, the quasar, called J0529-4351, is so far away its light took over 12 billion years to reach us — and it has a mass 17 billion times that of the sun. “Quasars are still rare objects, so any time we find one, they are like gemstones in a lot of dirt we have been turning over,” Christian Wolf, a professor at Australian National University and lead author of the study, which was published in Nature Astronomy on Monday, said in an email.

The study of quasars is important because “most large galaxies contain a massive black hole at their centre, and they have affected the development of their host galaxies,” Wolf wrote, adding that such research would be able to further our understanding of the expansion of the universe in the future.

The name “quasar” is a nod to the objects’ starlike properties, and stands for quasi-stellar radio source.

Astronomers find a shockingly ancient black hole the size of 12 billion suns

The light emitted by this quasar is 20,000 times as intense as that of the Milky Way galaxy, Wolf said. So intense, that if the object was placed in the center of the Milky Way, it would never again turn night on Earth. “Even with the Sun down, there would be twilight,” he said.

While the quasar can look beautiful and dreamlike in the artist’s impression, Wolf likens the object to “a giant hurricane with the black hole in the eye of the storm,” or “the biggest gates to hell we have found anywhere in the universe,” given its sheer size of its accretion disc — that is, the matter being pulled in toward the black hole.

“We need to assume that this quasar is the most violent place that we know in the Universe because: the visible accretion disc is 7 light years across,” he said in his email. This means you could expect burning hot temperatures, strong magnetic fields and wind speeds ranging from thousands of miles per second blasting across the outer edge, and “lightning bolts of cosmic size discharging everywhere.”

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However, Wolf has reassuring words for anyone feeling nervous about such a massive black hole. “Not only is the monster far away… its light has travelled over 12 billion years to reach us. That also means that the black hole has stopped growing long ago.”

Wolf, who has described his work seeking quasars as like a “treasure hunt,” added that discovering this particular quasar put a “big smile” on his face, fueling him with a “sense of wonder that things as extreme as this one exist.”


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