Black hole goes dormant after chowing down on interstellar food

By Michael Mayday , Jun 12, 2013 09:06 PM EDT

Akin to seeing a mall Santa Calus without his beard for the first time, NASA has found a black hole not absorbing everything in its path for the first time.

That's right. A black hole surrounded by edible gasses and stars isn't chowing down, it's sleeping.

The black hole in question was first discovered by Chandra's x-ray Observatory in 2003, and is located in the Sculptor galaxy. That galaxy is classified as a starburst galaxy, one which rapidly creates news stars, and is located a neighborly 13 million light years away from our own Milky Way galaxy.

Typically, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) explains, black holes go dormant only when they've run out of material to feed on from their accretion disks - disks of material being stripped from nearby stars or planets. For a black hole nearly five million times the mass of our sun to not eat from the star-forming activity around it is highly unusual.

"Black hole growth and star formation often go hand-in-hand in distant galaxies," Daniel Stern, a co-author and NuSTAR project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., said in a prepared statement. "It's a bit surprising as to what's going on here, but we've got two powerful complementary X-ray telescopes on the case."

Of course, it's entirely possible that the black hole was never awake to begin with, and the x-ray emissions observed by Chandra and NuSTAR telescopes, the two telescopes which picked up on the sleeping black hole, could be from a different source, according to JPL.

But NASA is on the case, saying they'll periodically check in on the black hole for any activity to see if the black hole wakes up again.

"Our results imply that the black hole went dormant in the past 10 years," Bret Lehmer of the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., said in a JPL post "Periodic observations with both Chandra and NuSTAR should tell us unambiguously if the black hole wakes up again. If this happens in the next few years, we hope to be watching."

All galaxies are suspected of harboring at least one supermassive black hole - a black hole with hundreds of thousands to billions of solar masses - residing somewhere in the center of the galaxy.

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