'Wandering' black hole spotted

A 'hyperluminous X-ray source' has been identified as a massive black hole that may have wandered into another galaxy.

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The main section of this image shows an optical view of the region by the Hubble Space Telescope. On the left is Hubble’s view of GJ1417+52 with the wandering object circled; on the right is the same view but in X-rays.
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/UNH/D.Lin et al; Optical: NASA/STScI

A black hole has been observed having ‘wandered’ into another galaxy after its home galaxy was swallowed by a larger one.

Observations led by Dacheng Lin from the University of New Hampshire suggest the black hole has about 100,000 times the Sun’s mass and that it experienced a burst of X-ray emissions after its gravity tore apart a passing star.

It is believed that most galaxies contain a black hole at their centre, but the one spotted using the Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA’s XMM-Newton X-ray observatory seems to have left its host galaxy and ended up in a different, larger galaxy.

Astronomers looked at the edge of lenticular galaxy GJ1417+52 about 4.5 billion lightyears from Earth and spotted a source of extreme X-rays, now referred to as XJ1417+52. The object’s brightness suggests it is a supermassive black hole and has been described as a “hyper-luminous X-ray source”.

At its brightest, the object is about ten times more luminous than the brightest X-ray source ever seen from a wandering black hole. This peak was observed between 2000 and 2002, but not in later observations in 2005, 2014 and 2015.

The outburst in 2002 and 2002 may have been a result of the black hole having torn apart a passing star and swallowing its remnants, causing the black hole to heat up and give off X-rays.

The location and brightness of the object, as seen in optical images by the Hubble Space Telescope, suggest it is a black hole that did not originate in the galaxy. It is thought that the black hole’s host galaxy may have collided with the much bigger GJ1417+52 galaxy, dragging the black hole with it.


Carousel image: a supermassive black hole is heated as surrounding material falls into it, in this artist’s concept. Is this the bright source that led to the discovery of the wandering black hole?
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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