Dormant Supermasive Black Hole Springs to Life in Distant Galaxy

First Posted: Jul 09, 2015 11:40 AM EDT

A team of astronomers have watched a previously dormant black hole wake up in a dramatic display. They've seen material fall into the black hole for the first time in perhaps millions of years.

Almost every galaxy appears to have a black hole at its core. Most of the time, these black holes are quiet with just their invisible gravitational pull shaping their surroundings. In about 10 percent of galaxies, though, the black holes is much more active and swallows material while spitting out giant jets.

In this latest study, the researchers found convincing evidence of a black hole "switching on" into its active phase. In this case, the researchers looked at the black hole at the center of the galaxy NGC 660, which is 42 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation, Pisces.

The researchers first noticed the unusual activity in 2012 when the galaxy became hundreds of times brighter over just a few months. Over the last three years, though, scientists have examined archived results from ground- and space-based telescopes to learn a bit more about the phenomenon. In the end, the scientists concluded that it was likely a newly-awoken supermassive black hole.

"As supermassive black holes are so huge, they evolve very slowly, remaining dormant for thousands of years at a time, so to catch one waking up is really incredible," said Sam Connolly, one of the researchers, in a news release.

The new images reveal a new, very bright radio source at the center of the galaxy. This is exactly where researchers would expect to find the central supermassive black hole.

Studying the jet from the supermassive black hole will give astronomers a clue about the initial eruption of the jet and how much material fell onto the black hole to cause the outburst in the first place.

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