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Found: A Galaxy That Shines With the Light of Over 300 Trillion Suns

A very hungry black hole at the center of WISE J224607.57-052635.0 emits an incredible amount of light

An artist's rendering of WISE J224607.57-052635.0, which was recently spotted by an infrared space telescope. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
smithsonian.com

Call it the space telescope with nine lives — NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has been surveying the skies on and off since it was launched into orbit in 2009. Now, NASA reports that the scope has spotted an “extremely luminous infrared galaxy” (ELIRG) that shines with the light of more than 300 trillion suns.

NASA scientists are gushing over the find, which they call a “dazzlingly luminous galaxy” in a “very crucial and frenzied chapter of our cosmos” in a release. But why’s it so bright? It could be due to a huge, very hungry black hole inside the galaxy.

Black holes suck everything and anything into a disk that surrounds them. As matter, gas and other substances go in, the disk spits out light. Dust surrounds that bright ring and heats up, radiating infrared light. That’s what WISE can see — the scope specializes in infrared light, detecting far-off phenomena and transmitting images back to earth. And this galaxy is far off indeed…images of the super-bright galaxy took 12.5 billion years to reach earth.

In a new report about the galaxy, which scientists know as WISE J224607.57-052635.0, scientists hypothesize about three possible reasons the galaxy could have such a gigantic black hole. Maybe it started that way, or maybe it breaks a theoretical limit that hypothetically restricts the amount a black hole can eat. Or maybe it’s neither — if a black hole spins just slowly enough, it might be able to eat more starstuff. So far, nobody really knows which of these applies to this supremely shiny galaxy. 

Andrew Blain of University of Leicester, who co-authored the report, compares that theory to the idea of a competitive eater hungry for gas and matter. “It’s like winning a hot-dog-eating contest lasting hundreds of millions of years,” he notes. Next up for Blain’s team: figure out how much the black holes at the galaxy’s center actually weigh. That information will allow them to better understand what’s going on in that blinding galaxy, and why the black holes at its center have such a need to feed.

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