A black hole eruption marks the most powerful explosion ever spotted

The outburst was five times as energetic as the last record holder

black hole explosion

Radio waves (blue in this composite image) trickle out of a cavity in hot X-ray emitting gas (purple) enveloping a massive galaxy (white, top). The radio waves likely come from high-speed electrons accelerated by an eruption long ago from a gargantuan black hole at the galaxy’s center.

X-ray: S. Giacintucci et al/NRL, CXC/NASA, XMM-Newton/ESA; Radio: GMRT, TIFR, NCRA; Infrared: 2MASS/UMass, IPAC-Caltech/NASA, NSF

Say hello to the Krakatoa of black hole eruptions.

Hundreds of millions of years ago, a supermassive black hole in a far-off galaxy blew out gas into intergalactic space. The flare-up was about five times as powerful as the previous record holder, researchers report in the March 1 Astrophysical Journal. The energy from this one explosion was roughly 100 billion times as much as the sun is expected to emit in its entire lifetime. This makes it not only the most energetic known eruption from a supermassive black hole — it’s also the most powerful eruption of any kind in the universe.

Eruptions from enormous black holes aren’t uncommon. The explosions are powered by the release of pent-up energy in encircling disks of hot gas. But the team notes that this newfound eruption is thousands of times more powerful than most.

The source of the eruption was a beast of a galaxy at the center of the Ophiuchus cluster, a gathering of galaxies nearly 400 million light-years from Earth. In 2016, researchers noticed the edge of a cavity in the cluster’s hot, X-ray emitting gas, about 400,000 light-years from the central galaxy. The excavated region appears to be over a million light-years across.

To suss out the origin of the cavity, astrophysicist Simona Giacintucci at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., and colleagues pored through data from several radio telescopes. The scientists found that the cavity glowed with radio waves, likely from electrons accelerated to near the speed of light. The team suggests that the electrons got revved up by a powerful outburst at least 240 million years prior from a supermassive black hole at the heart of the cluster’s central galaxy.

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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