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ESO observes massive black hole ‘awaken’ in real time

24 Jun 2024

Steady data from a galaxy observed since 2019 started to show tell-tale changes in brightness.

In late 2019 the previously unremarkable galaxy SDSS1335+0728 suddenly started shining brighter than ever before. To understand why, astronomers have used data from several space and ground-based observatories, including the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT), to track how the galaxy’s brightness has varied.

In a newly-published study, they conclude that they are witnessing changes never seen before in a galaxy — likely the result of the sudden awakening of the massive black hole at its core.

“Imagine you’ve been observing a distant galaxy for years, and it always seemed calm and inactive,” said Paula Sánchez Sáez, an astronomer at ESO in Germany and lead author of the study for Astronomy & Astrophysics.

“Suddenly, its core starts showing dramatic changes in brightness, unlike any typical events we've seen before,” she added. This is what happened to SDSS1335+0728, which is now classified as having an ‘active galactic nucleus’ — a bright compact region powered by a massive black hole — after it brightened dramatically in December 2019.

Some phenomena, like supernova explosions or tidal disruption events — when a star gets too close to a black hole and is torn apart — can make galaxies suddenly light up, said the ESO statement. But these brightness variations typically last only a few dozen or, at most, a few hundreds of days.

SDSS1335+0728 is still growing brighter today, more than four years after it was first seen to ‘switch on’. Moreover, the variations detected in the galaxy, which is located 300 million light-years away in the constellation Virgo, are unlike any seen before, pointing astronomers towards a different explanation.

X-shooter instrument

The team tried to understand these brightness variations using a combination of archival data and new observations from several facilities, including the X-shooter instrument on ESO’s VLT in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Comparing the data taken before and after December 2019, they found that SDSS1335+0728 is now radiating much more light at ultraviolet, optical, and infrared wavelengths. The galaxy also started emitting X-rays in February 2024. “This behaviour is unprecedented,” said Sánchez Sáez, who is also affiliated with the Millennium Institute of Astrophysics (MAS) in Chile.

“The most tangible option to explain this phenomenon is that we are seeing how the core of the galaxy is beginning to show activity,” commented co-author Lorena Hernández García, from MAS and the University of Valparaíso in Chile. “If so, this would be the first time that we see the activation of a massive black hole in real time.”

Massive black holes — with masses over one hundred thousand times that of our Sun — exist at the center of most galaxies, including the Milky Way. “These giant monsters usually are sleeping and not directly visible,” said co-author Claudio Ricci, from the Diego Portales University, also in Chile.

“In the case of SDSS1335+0728, we were able to observe the awakening of the massive black hole, which suddenly started to consume the gas available in its surroundings, becoming very bright.”

“This process has never been observed before,” Hernández García said. Previous studies reported inactive galaxies becoming active after several years, but this is the first time the process itself — the awakening of the black hole — has been observed in real time.Ricci, who is also affiliated with the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, at Peking University, China, added, “This is something that could happen also to our own Sgr A*, the massive black hole located at the centre of our galaxy.” Ricci added that it is unclear how likely this is to happen.

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