According to a new study, the brightest galaxy ever discovered may be in the process of tearing itself apart. WISE J224607.57-052635.0 (W2246-0526) is believed to be brighter than 300 trillion Suns, however the cause of this brightness – the supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy – could also be responsible for a drastic transformation.
W2246-0526 is estimated to sit roughly 12.4 billion light-years from Earth, and belongs to a class of galaxies known as Hot, Dust-Obscured Galaxies (Hot DOGs). These dust-cloaked, comically-named galaxies are very rare, and at their cores harbour extremely active supermassive black holes.
In 2015, a study found W2246-0526 to have the highest power output of any galaxy ever discovered, drawing on information harvested by NASA's WISE orbital telescope to characterize the cosmic structure. However, a new study suggests that W2246-0526 is undergoing a rapid transformation.
New observations of the object carried out by the Earth-bound Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have revealed that the galaxy is throwing off vast quantities of ionized carbon gas. The route of this galactic turmoil can be traced back to the supermassive black hole lurking at the centre of W2246-0526.
As surrounding matter is drawn inward by the gravity of the black hole, it forms what is known as an accretion disk. Friction in the disk causes the material to become superheated, creating an intense source of light. This light does not simply escape into space, it is absorbed by the surrounding gas and dust, and is subsequently re-emitted as infrared light.
According to astronomers, this process is influencing the entire galaxy, stirring up gas over 100,000 light-years away from the event horizon in all directions, causing W2246-0526 to shed vast quantities of gas and dust.
Astronomers are not yet sure whether the gas being expelled by the volatile particles will be drawn back toward W2246-0526. A second potential result of the chaotic activity would see the galaxy become a quasar as it continues to shed the vast majority of the remaining interstellar gas, until only the supermassive black hole and its exposed accretion disk remain.
A paper on the study has been published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.