Thursday, September 3, 2009

Black holes in pre-school days: Discovery surprises

Deep in space, and so far away that our view of it is 12.8 billion years old, there is a hole, a black hole, within a distant galaxy.

That's back when the universe was just a youngster. In human years, if the universe were 60 now, looking at that galaxy is like looking at it when it was still in pre-school.

(Image: False-color image of the QSO (CFHQSJ2329-0301), the most distant black hole currently known. In addition to the bright central black hole (white), the image shows the surrounding host galaxy (red). Credit: Tomotsugu Goto, University of Hawaii)

The black hole and its galaxy were discovered by University of Hawai'i astronomer Tomotsugu Goto

It's a big black hole, and the most distant black holes ever seen. It is classified as a supermassive black hole—you'd need to stuff a billion of our suns into it to match the amount of matter it contains.

And it's in a galaxy about the size of our own Milky Way.

Both the black hole's size and the galaxy's size—at a time when the universe was so young, are notable, Goto said.

“It is surprising that such a giant galaxy existed when the Universe was only one-sixteenth of its present age, and that it hosted a black hole one billion times more massive than the sun. The galaxy and black hole must have formed very rapidly in the early universe,” he said.

What's also surprising is that Goto was able to see the galaxy at all.

If someone shines a spotlight on you on a dark night, you see the light but you normally can't see the person behind it. Same problem with galaxies and black holes. While the black hole doesn't emit light, there's a lot of light around it, emitted as light by matter that is accelerating as it is sucked into the black hole. It can be so bright that the galaxy disappears from view.

Goto and his team used sophisticated charge-coupled device (CCD) electronic technology, attached to the Subprime-Cam camera on Mauna Kea's Subaru telescope, to separate the black hole from the galaxy.

“The improved sensitivity of the new CCDs has brought an exciting discovery as its very first result,” said Satoshi Miyazaki of the National Astronomy Observatory of Japan, who led the team developing the new CCDs.

This research will be published in the online version of the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society this month. The paper is available at /QSOhost/QSOhost_v7.pdf.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009


alotstuff said...

nice blog......

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