Astronomers have discovered one of the largest gravitational vortices yet using a new technique that can be used in the coming years to spot thousands more of these dense cosmic objects.
The ultramassive black hole, one of only four ever observed, has a mass more than 30 billion times that of the sun.
This is also the first gravitational vortex that has ever been observed using a phenomenon called gravitational lensing, during which light traveling to Earth from a distant galaxy is visibly magnified and bent inwards.
James Nightingale, an astronomer at Durham University in the United Kingdom, says the process is “similar to light shining through the base of a wine glass”.
He also says it was “very coincidental” that the light from a galaxy in the distant universe traveled extremely close to this gravitational vortex, located approximately two billion light years from Earth.
Supermassive gravitational vortices are located at the center of galaxies where gravity is so strong that even light cannot escape.
Nightingale says the new technique allows astronomers to discover gravitational vortices in the other 99 percent of galaxies that are currently inaccessible.
Nightingale now says the latest gravitational vortex to be discovered may be the largest ever recorded. However, it is difficult to say for sure, given the different techniques and uncertainties involved.
Previous gravitational vortices of this size have been observed when they emit large amounts of light at the edges – or by measuring the orbits of stars that accelerate as they pass.
However, these techniques only work for galaxies that are relatively close to Earth.
“However, the landscape is about to change dramatically,” says Nightingale.
The European Space Agency’s Euclid mission takes place in July and will usher in a “big data era” for so-called black hole hunters by creating a high-resolution map of the universe.
In the next six years, Euclid can find 100,000 new gravitational lenses, which will possibly point to thousands of previously hidden gravitational vortices, explains an excited Nightingale.
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