Having our telescopes almost continuously scanning for stars and observing distant galaxies, new discoveries are by no means uncommon. It is rare for astronomers to picture something completely different (and even terrifying), that may nearly defy what they thought was possible. Recently NASA has revealed images of RX J1532.9+3021 (RX J1532 for short), a galaxy cluster located 3.9 billion light-years away and harboring one of the most powerful black holes discovered to-date.
Using X-ray data from Chandra and optical data from Hubble, NASA has released images of the bright galaxy cluster. Being so bright in the short wavelengths suggests that is it incredibly large and rightfully so, with a mass approximately one quadrillion times that of the Sun. At the centre of the cluster is a large elliptical galaxy, containing the black hole and surrounded by enigmatic hot gas. This black hole appears to be ultramassive (as opposed to just supermassive), meaning that is has a mass 10 billion times that of the sun.
The gas is somewhat of a mystery to astronomers; gas glowing brightly in X-ray wavelengths should cool down and as a result the pressure should also drop. This means the gas should sink to the middle of the galaxy and would form trillions of stars. However, none of this has been observed by the astronomers; so what exactly is going on? According to NASA, RX J1532 isn't alone in its strange behaviour, but out of those seen, less than a dozen are as extreme as this one.
So what is stopping the stars from forming? Well Chandra's X-ray images show two Milky Way sized 'cavities' in the surrounding hot gas, aligned with the black hole's jets. This indicates the jets have drilled into the gas, creating the cavities. As a result, shock waves are propelled through the gas, preventing it from cooling and inhibiting star formation.
Problem solved - right? In a sense, yes but it also raises another question. If the black hole is producing jets, what is fueling them? Chandra shows no X-ray emissions indicating there is matter falling into the black hole. Astronomers have two possible explanations - either the black hole is actually over 10 billion solar masses (and not requiring much matter to produce jets) or the black is smaller (1 billion solar masses) and spinning incredibly fast!
Either way, we are dealing with a monstrous black hole. To add to the mystery, astronomers also noticed one more cavity in the distance; it is older than the others and not in line with the jets. This additional cavity indicates the entire gas cloud may be moving relative to the jets, or the black hole is be wobbling, like a spinning top and changing the direction of the jets over time.
Whatever is driving the unusual phenomenon in this distant galaxy cluster, it is very interesting indeed!