Record-Breaking Black Hole Blast Discovered

An international team of astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) has found a quasar with the most energetic outflow ever seen, at least five times more powerful than any that has been observed to date.

This artist’s impression shows the material ejected from the region around the supermassive black hole in the quasar SDSS J1106+1939 (L. Calçada / ESO)

Quasars are the intensely bright centers of distant galaxies that are powered by huge black holes. Although black holes are noted for pulling material in, most quasars also accelerate some of the material around them and eject it at high speed.

The team studied a quasar labeled SDSS J1106+1939 in great detail using the VLT – the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory, and found the most energetic quasar outflow ever discovered.

“We have discovered the most energetic quasar outflow known to date. The rate that energy is carried away by this huge mass of material ejected at high speed from SDSS J1106+1939 is at least equivalent to two million million times the power output of the Sun. This is about 100 times higher than the total power output of the Milky Way galaxy – it’s a real monster of an outflow,” said Dr Nahum Arav of the Virginia Tech’s Department of Physics, co-author of the study reporting the discovery accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal (ESO version / arXiv.org version).

“This is the first time that a quasar outflow has been measured to have the sort of very high energies that are predicted by theory.”

Many theoretical simulations suggest that the impact of these outflows on the galaxies around them may resolve several enigmas in modern cosmology, including how the mass of a galaxy is linked to its central black hole mass, and why there are so few large galaxies in the Universe. However, whether or not quasars were capable of producing outflows powerful enough to produce these phenomena has remained unclear until now.

The newly discovered outflow lies about a thousand light-years away from the supermassive black hole at the heart of the quasar SDSS J1106+1939. This outflow is at least five times more powerful than the previous record holder. The team’s analysis shows that a mass of approximately 400 times that of the Sun is streaming away from this quasar per year, moving at a speed of 8,000 km per second.

“We couldn’t have got the high-quality data to make this discovery without the VLT’s X-shooter spectrograph,” said lead author Dr Benoit Borguet of the Virginia Tech. “We were able to explore the region around the quasar in great detail for the first time.”

“I’ve been looking for something like this for a decade,” Dr Arav said, “so it’s thrilling to finally find one of the monster outflows that have been predicted!”

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Bibliographic information: Benoit C.J. Borguet et al. 2012. Major contributor to AGN feedback: VLT X-shooter observations of SIV BAL QSO outflows. Accepted for publication in ApJ; arXiv: 1211.6250