A new study reveals a supermassive black hole with a mass three billion times that of the sun in a galaxy approximately 1.8 billion light-years away from the Earth. The galaxy - called IRAS 20100-4156 - stems from three spiral galaxies that are in the process of colliding with one another.
The scientist who conducted the study came across the supermassive black hole at the center of this collision by chance while conducting a test observation of CSIRO's new Australian Square Kilometer Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) telescope.
"[I] thought it would be quite a mundane thing," said Lisa Harvey-Smith, the CSIRO astrophysicist who came across the three-way collision while measuring the maser emissions coming from IRAS 20100-4156.
After checking what were supposed to be routine readings and comparing them to those gained from another CSIRO telescope, the Australia Telescope Compact Array, Harvey-Smith discovered that the gas in the maser was travelling at extremely high speeds.
The speed of the gas was approximately 600 kilometers per second around the center of IRAS 20100-4156, around twice as fast as what was expected. This high speed suggested the formation of a supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy.
"The black hole at the center of our galaxy is only four million solar masses, so this one is a monster in comparison," Harvey-Smith said. "This very fast motion of the gas tells us about how massive the black hole is. The really exciting thing about this is it is a direct measurement of the mass of the black hole by stuff that's swirling around it."
Galaxy collisions such as these that lead to a supermassive black hole create a starburst, which refers to the formation of stars at an unusually high rate.
Harvey-Smith believes that her new mass data from the monster supermassive black hole will help increase our current understanding of the universe's various galaxy formation processes.
"We want to know whether galaxy collisions, and the formation of supermassive black holes, have really driven the star formation rates that we see in galaxies and how that's changed throughout time," she said.
The findings were published April 26 on the pre-print server arXiv.