Big and hungry: The 7 most metal black hole discoveries from 2019

We’re celebrating the mysterious cosmic entities for black hole week!

black hole m87

It’s been a rather supermassive year for black holes. These enigmatic monsters finally showed face in April, with the first ever image of a black hole making its way down to Earth. Using the Event Horizon Telescope, astronomers finally gave the world physical evidence of the existence of black holes. Located in galaxy M87, the black hole revealed its shining, red hot glory with a mass 6.5 billion times larger than the sun.

As scientists gain access to more powerful telescopes and advanced technologies that lead to these kinds of revelations, they answer old questions and formulate new ones.

Through these new observations, scientists have learned one thing for certain: Black holes can act pretty weird sometimes. And in commemoration of black hole week, we’re recapping some of the wackiest, most bizarre behavior observed this year, including hungry black holes, black holes that have tricked stars into orbiting around them, and just about everything in between.

Joe Pesce, Ph.D., program director at the National Science Foundation’s Division of Astronomical Sciences, explains how greater clarity has lead to unprecedented and often puzzling observations in the past couple of years.

“We opened a new realm of observations,” Pesce tells Inverse. “We also have many more questions because we’re seeing things we’ve never seen before.”

So without further ado, here are the 7 weirdest black hole finds of recent years:

7. Our galaxy’s black hole might be getting hungrier

We’re starting off with a black hole that’s not too far from home, located only 26,000 light-years away in the center of the Milky Way. On May 13, astronomers observed the area around the black hole to be twice as bright as the brightest it had ever been before.

The sudden burst of light indicated that an unusually large amount of interstellar gas and dust hd fallen into the center of the black hole and was consumed by it, giving our galaxy’s black hole the unflattering reputation that it was getting hungrier.

However, further observations are needed to determine whether this was a one-off occurrence or if in fact the black hole located in the center of the Milky Way is developing a bigger appetite for cosmic matter.

Illustration showing the ring of dust and gas with the supermassive black hole in the center. The disk is almost a thousand light years across
The ring of dust and gas surrounding the supermassive black hole is almost a thousand light-years across

6. A really, really supermassive black hole

We already know supermassive black holes are big, but in August, astronomers who use the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in northern Chile spotted its largest one yet. Located around 100 million light-years away from Earth at the center of galaxy NGC 3258, a supermassive black hole measured at 2.25 billion times the mass of our sun.

“We’re not sure how black holes get that mass, how they get that big,” Pesce says.

Scientists are still unsure exactly how these large black holes form, but reaching this size can take less than a billion years.

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory image reveals shrouded black hole

5. The cloaked black hole of the early universe

One of the rarest sightings of black holes, this mysterious cloaked monster appeared behind a cloud of gas to a team of astronomers using the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. The black hole was reportedly born less than a billion years after the universe began, making it nearly 13 billion years old.

During their early growth period, black holes are usually cloaked behind a dense cloud of gas, which forms as the black hole consumes surrounding matter for much needed nurture.

This gas cloud makes it harder to detect these adolescents, therefore the sighting of a cloaked black hole is quite the treat for astronomers as it helps them better understand the evolution of black holes.

NGC 4395 is imaged with the Schulman Telescope at Mount Lemmon Observatory

4. Tiny black hole in dwarf galaxy vs. tiny galaxy with pretty big black hole

A black holes are typically envisioned as burning bright, massive beings at the center of colossal galaxies. But two back-to-back observations this year showed that black holes come in all sizes, and so do their host galaxies.

Scientists measured a black hole in a nearby dwarf galaxy that turned out to be 40 times smaller than they had originally anticipated — only 10,000 times the mass of our sun. It is widely believed that galaxies the size of the Milky Way or larger have a supermassive black hole at their center, but little is known about the black holes of smaller galaxies — and whether black holes necessarily exist in each of them.

A second observation added even more mystery: A dwarf galaxy was hosting a supermassive black hole in its tiny center. For a long time, astronomers believed that size does matter for galaxies — the bigger the galaxy, the bigger the black hole. But this unusual pairing, a galaxy that is 3 percent the size of the Milky Way and a black hole that measures at over a million times the mass of our sun, defies all previous perceptions.

wobbling black hole in V404 Cygni

3. Cosmic material wobbles around this black hole

Astronomers observing a black hole in a nearby galaxy, nearly 8,000 light-years from Earth, saw something quite strange. Fast-moving, hot jets of stellar material were shooting out of the area surrounding the black hole, and those jets were wobbling and changing direction in a matter of minutes.

Using the National Science Foundation’s Very Long Baseline Array, the team of astronomers observed the black hole consuming material from a nearby star. That material formed a dense disk of material around the black hole that kept getting hotter as it was drawn closer to the center of the black hole. But the black hole’s gravitational pull was so strong, that it was tugging at its surrounding space.

According to the General Theory of Relativity, massive objects like black holes can distort space and time around them. And since the black hole’s axis was misaligned with the plane of its companion star’s orbit, the black hole tugged at space-time and created its signature wobble.

gsn 069

2. A black hole with a strict meal plan

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about black holes so far, it’s that they’re pretty erratic. But not this black hole, located around 250 million light-years away, which was eating three meals a day. That’s a regular schedule, even on a human timescale.

Every 9 hours, this black hole would consume a pretty large meal — around a million billion billion pounds of stellar material or the equivalent of about four moons.

A team of scientists first noticed this odd behavior through a series of X-ray bursts that were 20 times brighter than usual coming from Galaxy GSN 069.

Artist’s impression of NGC 3147 black hole disc

1. This starving black hole is hungry no more

On the other hand, black holes in low luminosity galaxies are believed to be “starving” black holes because their host galaxy lacks a strong enough gravitational pull to provide cosmic material for the black hole to munch on.

However, the black hole at the center of spiral galaxy NGC 3147, around 130 million light-years away, was observed with a thin disk of material circling around it similar to disks observed in heftier galaxies.

Scientists had originally picked to observe this galaxy in order to confirm their theories about starving black holes, only to find it with a healthy spread of food.

It turns out this black hole was not skipping its meals after all.

Media via UCLA, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), X-ray: NASA/CXO/Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile/F. Vito; Radio: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); optical: Pan-STARRS, Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona, ICRAR, X-ray: NASA/CXO/CSIC-INTA/G.Miniutti et al.; Optical: DSS, ESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser, Event Horizon Telescope