Supermassive Black Hole is Caught Letting Out Massive 'Burps'

Thursday, 11 January 2018 - 7:56PM
Black Holes
Weird Science
Thursday, 11 January 2018 - 7:56PM
Supermassive Black Hole is Caught Letting Out Massive 'Burps'
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NASA/ESA

Black holes are incredibly powerful gravity wells that absorb anything and everything that gets too close. There is no escape from the crushing embrace of one of these dark monsters, and nothing that enters a black hole's orbit will ever be free again.

Well, almost nothing. As it turns out, supermassive black holes aren't always thorough when gobbling up star systems and solar debris. While even light cannot escape the pull of one of these gravity wells, blacks holes do, very occasionally, "burp" back out chunks of half-consumed gas.

This may not even be all that rare of an occurrence, if the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy named "SDSS J1354+1327" can be taken as a typical example of these hungry monsters. This particular black hole has been spotted burping not once, but twice, showing just how imprecise the process of being gobbled up by a black hole can become when a lot of matter is pouring into one all at once.

The black hole of SDSS J1354+1327 is particularly well fed: cosmic gas is being spewed out by a nearby galaxy, which flows in part into SDSS J1354+1327, and straight into the black hole's hungry mouth. With so much circling this particular galactic drain all at the same time, it does make sense that occasionally, bottlenecked gas gets bubbled back out, spreading forth out into the galaxy as if deliberately and triumphantly enjoying its second lease of life.



Julie Comerford, an astronomer at the University of Colorado Boulder, has led a team of scientists in analyzing this particular black hole and its two burps. The first burp took place far more than a hundred thousand years ago, and the resultant gas that's been released into the universe has been traveling away from the black hole ever since.

Meanwhile, another burp must have taken place much more recently, having had less time to fan our across the stars. According to Comerford:

Opening quote
"Black holes are voracious eaters, but it also turns out they don't have very good table manners. We know a lot of examples of black holes with single burps emanating out, but we discovered a galaxy with a supermassive black hole that has not one but two burps. This new burp is actually moving like a shock wave - it's coming out very fast, and so it's kind of like a sonic boom of a burp, whereas the gas to the south shows us an older burp that happens 100,000 years earlier before that newer burp."
Closing quote


This isn't a phenomenon that only occurs in other galaxies - in 2010, scientists spotted evidence of a burp emanating from one of the black holes at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy, showing just how commonplace these events are. For a star to burp twice, though, shows a particular disregard for rules of etiquette.

According to Comerford, periods of "feast and burp" come and go for black holes - the Milky Way's resident monster black hole is currently in a more dormant period, but it will, much like a volcano on Earth, eventually start producing a lot more activity, including chowing down on nearby stars at an accelerated rate, while also letting slip with cosmic burps a little more often.

Thankfully, even if this did happen, we don't have to worry too much about death by black hole - Earth is suitably far away from the center of the galaxy that we're very safe from such cosmic events.

Instead, we can simply remain mortified at the thought of our galaxy's largest black hole being as uncivilized as its SDSS J1354+1327. Perish the thought that any black hole of ours behave so rudely for all the universe to see.

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Black Holes
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