Astronomers have discovered that the most ravenous black holes in the universe are more like 128-pound Japanese eating champion Takeru Kobayashi than they are like hungry (and huge) sumo wrestlers.
Scientists have spied a black hole that is sucking up gas from a nearby star at a rate ten times faster than what was previously believed to be physically possible because of a basic assumption about the "appetite" of such objects.
"It was generally believed the maximum speed at which a black hole could swallow gas and produce light was tightly determined by its size," International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research astronomer Dr Roberto Soria said in a release announcing the discovery, which was published today in the journal Nature.
But the black hole known as P13, located about 12 million light years away on the edge of galaxy NGC7793, is more like the cosmic equivalent of a Kobayashi, taking in the weight equivalent of 100 billion billion hot dogs every minute.
As nearby gas is sucked toward a black hole, it gets hotter and brighter. Soria said P13 was first noticed because it was unusually bright (at least a million times brighter than the sun), leading scientists to assume it was of exceptional size compared with dimmer black holes seen in our own Milky Way galaxy.
But when Soria and colleagues measured P13's mass, it came up on the small side as black holes go (less than 15 times the mass of our Sun), making it a champion eater relative to its weight.
"These are the champions of competitive gas eating in the Universe, capable of swallowing their donor star in less than a million years, which is a very short time on cosmic scales," he said.
To bring the notion of the kind of supergluttonous speed-eating that we're talking about home, keep in mind that if this black hole set up shop next door to Earth, our home planet could easily be swallowed up in less than a year.