Black hole mega-burp was truly explosive

This cosmic outburst was five times as energetic as the last record holder

Hundreds of millions of years ago a huge black hole spewed an enormous stream of energy in the galaxy (white at the top of image). Now, hot X-ray emitting gas (purple) surrounds the galaxy. Radio waves (blue) trickle out of a cavity in the X-ray emitting gas.

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. 

Krakatoa is a volcano on Earth that blew its top in 1883. It was one of the most destructive eruptions on Earth — ever. But that explosion was nothing compared with a newly detected outburst in space. A huge black hole let loose a whole lot of energy. This happened millions of years ago. The mega-burp emitted roughly 100 billion times as much energy as the sun is expected to give off during its entire life. It also spewed gas out into intergalactic space.

This was the most powerful black-hole eruption known. Only the collision of galaxy clusters and the creation of the universe — the Big Bang itself — have been more powerful. 

Researchers described the newfound eruption March 1 in the Astrophysical Journal.

Eruptions from enormous black holes happen a lot. You might think of them as super-powerful burps. 

Disks of hot gas surround black holes. And it’s this gas — not the black hole itself — that burps out all of that energy. Why? Sometimes energy gets pent up in the gas. An eruption releases that stored energy. This newly identified event isn’t exactly like normal ones, though. It was thousands of times more powerful than most. 

The eruption happened at least 240 million years ago in a beast of a galaxy. That galaxy lies nearly 400 million light-years from Earth. It sits at the center of a cluster of galaxies known as Ophiuchus. In 2016, researchers noticed there was a hole in the cluster’s X-ray-emitting hot gas. The excavated region was huge. It looked to be more than a million light-years across. And the team noticed something else. The hole was about 400,000 light-years from the center galaxy.

How did this hole form? 

That was a question Simona Giacintucci wanted to answer. She is an astrophysicist, at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. It’s in Washington, D.C. She and her colleagues pored through data from several radio telescopes for clues. The scientists saw the hole in X-ray images. It did not appear in radio images. At radio wavelengths, the hole instead glows. The radio light probably comes from electrons that were accelerated to close to the speed of light. The scientists think energy burped out in that eruption is what revved up those electrons.

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