The brightest object in the universe is a sun-eating colossus

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The brightest object in the universe is a sun-eating colossus


Australian astronomers have discovered the most luminous object in the universe – a ravenous, chaotic, fast-growing black hole 17 billion times heavier than our sun and 200 trillion times brighter.

Most black holes are dormant and hard to spot because they swallow up light. But this record-breaking black hole, or quasar, is still feeding, enwreathed by a sizzling vortex of matter crackling with lightning bolts as it devours a sun’s worth of cosmic material each day.

An artist’s impression of quasar J0529-4351, the most luminous object in the universe and the fastest-growing black hole ever recorded.Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

“This is now the most luminous quasar, the most luminous object in the universe, the fastest-growing black hole of all time,” Associate Professor Christian Wolf, a quasar hunter from the Australian National University and lead author of the research published in Nature Astronomy, said.

The black hole’s colossal gravity crushes surrounding matter into a flared disk. The material rages around the quasar at speeds exceeding 10,000 kilometres per second, and friction discharges in huge lightning bolts that superheat the fiery spiral to tens of thousands of degrees.

“That huge amount of heat glow produces all that luminosity,” Wolf said.

The quasar, dubbed J0529−4351, is seven light years wide. That’s 1½ times longer than the distance from our solar system to Alpha Centauri – the brightest star in “the Pointers” formation near the Southern Cross.

The region of the sky in which the record-breaking quasar J0529-4351 is situated.

The region of the sky in which the record-breaking quasar J0529-4351 is situated.Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2/Dark Energy Survey

Despite their brightness, quasars are hard to spot because they are so distant, rare and hard to distinguish from stars.

Wolf and his team uncovered the quasar by surveying the sky through a 2.3-metre telescope at the ANU Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran, NSW.

They also used infrared data gathered from a billion stars by the European Space Agency’s Gaia observatory and NASA’s asteroid-detection telescope system to help zero in on the “needle in the haystack”.

Once researchers discovered the quasar, they measured its mass with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (8.2 metres in diameter) in Chile.

An image of the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, showing the bright ring of matter circling the dark centre where the black hole’s event horizon - the point at which no light can escape - extends.

An image of the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, showing the bright ring of matter circling the dark centre where the black hole’s event horizon – the point at which no light can escape – extends.Credit: AP

Wolf and his team realised that a quasar they’d reported as the fastest-growing black hole ever in 2022 had been dethroned by J0529−4351. Now Wolf believes the new quasar’s record will never be bested, although he’s eaten his words before.

“The light from this new object has travelled for 12 billion years to reach us,” Wolf said. “We see it at a time when the universe was 1½ billion years old, which is about 10 per cent of its present age.”

The early universe was a maelstrom of colliding gas clouds and galactic chaos. Material from the collisions rained down on black holes and they hoovered up the debris.

Many black holes are dormant now because the universe is relatively ordered. It’s quite rare that a star gets sucked into a black hole; they’re more bottom-dwelling filter feeders than star-guzzling predators.

That why this newly discovered quasar is so unique. Because of its incredible brightness, astronomers plan to enlist the cosmic giant in an ambitious project to directly measure the expansion of the universe, Wolf said.

The intention is to measure changes in light from objects such as the quasar over a decade and try to pin down how the universe – the cradle of existence – may be drifting apart. The new quasar, Wolf said, “will make the overall signal more precise for that experiment”.

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