An artistic impression of a gas disk feeding a massive black hole while emitting radiation. An artistic impression of a gas disk feeding a massive black hole while emitting radiation. An artistic impression of a gas disk feeding a massive black hole while emitting radiation. (Photo: NASA)

Breakthrough discovery: Supermassive black holes go on star-swallowing binges

'These giants have a way of eating fast,' said one astrophysicist.

What objects weigh millions to billions of times more than our sun and lie at the center of most galaxies, including our own? Supermassive black holes.

Albert Einstein's research first helped introduce the concept of black holes in the early part of the 20th century, and scientists are continuing to test those theories more than 100 years later. The latest example is a team of scientists who have discovered how supermassive black holes grow so big so fast. A new Tel Aviv University-led study published this week in the Nature Astronomy journal found that these black holes suddenly devour a large amount of gas in their surroundings. Sometimes they even embark on a star-swallowing frenzy, creating an entirely new way of "feeding" black holes.

"The first clue was an additional component of light, which had never been seen in tidal disruption events," noted Dr. Benny Trakhtenbrot, who led the research.

Dr. Iair Arcavi, one of the authors of the new study, teaches in the Physics and Astronomy department at Tel Aviv University. "We followed this event for more than a year with telescopes on earth and in space, and what we saw did not match anything we had seen before," he said. In addition to the Israeli scientists, astronomers from the U.S., Chile, Poland and the U.K. took part in the observations and analysis effort.

The experiment used three different space telescopes. As it happens, one of the images collected during the data acquisition process turned out to be the millionth image taken by the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory – an event celebrated by NASA, which operates the space mission.

Dr. Avi Loeb, a fellow Israeli scientist, is the founding director of the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard University. "This study reveals a new process for growing supermassive black holes much faster than observed before," he told From The Grapevine this morning. "Fast growth of this type could explain the known existence of gigantic black holes weighing billions of suns, merely hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang. Prior to this discovery, it was unclear why 'giants' are found instead of just 'babies' in the nursery of the early universe. Thanks to the discovery of the team led by Dr. Benny Trakhtenbrot and Dr. Iair Arcavi, we now have a new path of figuring it out. These giants have a way of eating fast."

The observations matched the theoretical predictions of another member of the research team, Professor Hagai Netzer, also of Tel Aviv University. "We had predicted back in the 1980s that a black hole swallowing gas from its surroundings could produce the elements of light seen here," explained Netzer. "This new result is the first time the process was seen in practice."

What's next for the team of researchers? "We hope to detect many more such events, and to follow them with several telescopes working in tandem," said Arcavi. "This is the only way to complete our picture of black hole growth, to understand what speeds it up, and perhaps finally solve the mystery of how these giant monsters form."

In celebration of the new discovery, enjoy a music video of one of the only songs about supermassive black holes:

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Breakthrough discovery: Supermassive black holes go on star-swallowing binges
'These giants have a way of eating fast,' said one astrophysicist.