Astronomers have witnessed a record-breaking blast of gas and dust flowing out of a monster black hole more than 11.5 billion light-years away.
The supermassive gravity well, with a mass of one to three billion suns, lurks at the core of a quasar—a class of extremely bright and energetic galaxies—dubbed SDSS J1106 1939. (See "Black Hole Blasts Superheated Early Universe.")
"We discovered the most energetic quasar outflow ever seen, at least five times more powerful than any that have been observed to date," said Nahum Arav, an astronomer at Virginia Tech and co-author of the study to be published in The Astrophysical Journal.
Using the powerful telescopes of the European Southern Observatory in Chile, Arav and his team were able to clock the speed and other properties of the outflow.
Belching out material as much as 400 times the weight of our sun every year, the blast is located nearly a thousand light-years from the quasar and has a velocity of roughly 18 million miles (29 million kilometers) per hour.
"We were hoping to see something like this, but the sheer power of this outflow still took us by surprise," said Arav.
The central black hole in this quasar is true giant dynamo. It's estimated to be upward of a thousand times more massive than the one in the Milky Way, producing energy at rates about a hundred times higher than the total power output of our galaxy. (See black hole pictures.)
Clues to Galaxy Evolution
Supermassive black holes are large enough to swallow our entire solar system and are notorious for ripping apart and swallowing stars. But they also power distant quasars and spew out material at high speeds.
The outflows have been suspected to play a key role in the evolution of galaxies, explained Arav, but questions have persisted for years in the astronomical community as to whether they were powerful enough.
This newly discovered super outflow could solve major cosmic mysteries, including how the mass of a galaxy is linked to its central black hole mass and why there is a relative scarcity of large galaxies across the universe.
"I believe this is the smoking gun for several theoretical ideas that use the mechanical energy output of quasars to solve several important problems in the formation of galaxies and cluster of galaxies," said Arav.
While Kirk Korista, an astronomer not connected to the study, believes these claims may be a bit premature, the research is expected to shed new light on the most powerful and least understood portions of typical quasar outflows.
"The superb spectroscopic data of this quasar have allowed for a breakthrough in quantifying the energetics of what is probably a typical quasar outflow," said Korista, an astronomy professor at Western Michigan University.
"This definitely is an important step in piecing together the story of galaxy evolution, and in elucidating the role of quasars in that story."