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ESO/L. Calçada

Astronomers spy galaxies caught in the web of a voracious black hole

Astronomers staring out to the farthest reaches of the universe, and hence the deepest depths of time, have been puzzled to find supermassive black holes. How could such behemoths have had time to swallow up so much matter when the universe was so young? With new observations of one of these youthful giants—a black hole 1 billion times the mass of the Sun and less than 1 billion years old—astronomers now have a possible answer.

They found the black hole was connected to six nearby galaxies by filaments: feeding tubes for the monster in their midst. Assembling this family portrait (imagined above) took many observations—some lasting all night long—with some of the world’s largest telescopes, including the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. This is the first time a tight-knit group of galaxies has been caught in the act of feeding a supermassive black hole, the researchers report today in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

And what bunched those galaxies together? The team suggests the culprit is an agglomeration of dark matter, the mysterious but unseen stuff thought to make up 85% of the universe’s matter. The dark matter may have pulled in huge quantities of gas and dust, allowing both the galaxies and the black hole to form.