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Most luminous galaxy glows like 300 trillion suns, says NASA

Someone left a bright nightlight on in the universe. One of NASA's spacecrafts located the shiniest galaxy ever discovered.

WISE J224607.57-052635.0 galaxy artist's concept
An artist's concept of galaxy WISE J224607.57-052635.0. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Our home Milky Way galaxy is a dim bulb compared to a new galaxy discovered by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft. Dubbed "the current record holder for the most luminous galaxy in the universe," galaxy WISE J224607.57-052635.0 shines brighter than the searing eyes of Cyclops from X-Men.

NASA says the galaxy radiates with the light of 300 trillion suns. The reason for the galaxy's brilliance may be a massive, well-fed black hole at its center. "We are looking at a very intense phase of galaxy evolution," said Chao-Wei Tsai of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "This dazzling light may be from the main growth spurt of the galaxy's black hole."

Here is NASA's crash course on the behavior of black holes: "Supermassive black holes draw gas and matter into a disk around them, heating the disk to roaring temperatures of millions of degrees and blasting out high-energy, visible, ultraviolet and X-ray light. The light is blocked by surrounding cocoons of dust. As the dust heats up, it radiates infrared light."

Scientists are now trying to sort out how the bright galaxy managed to get such a supermassive black hole. Two leading theories are that it may have simply been born with an extremely large black hole to begin with, or it may be a very slow spinning black hole, able to snarf up more gas than its faster-spinning brethren.

The galaxy belongs to a newly discovered class with the challenging-to-pronounce acronym ELIRG, which stands for "extremely luminous infrared galaxies." WISE has sniffed out 20 galaxies fitting this description as part of its mission to survey the entire sky in infrared light. The spacecraft was launched in December 2009 and is helping scientists track down distant, hard-to-find objects in space.

The researchers published their findings in the May 22 issue of The Astrophysical Journal under the title "The Most Luminous Galaxies Discovered by WISE."

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