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The most luminous galaxy is being torn apart by a black hole

This artist's rendering shows a galaxy called W2246-0526, the most luminous galaxy known. New research suggests there is turbulent gas across its entirety, the first example of its kind.

NRAO/AUI/NSF; Dana Berry / SkyWorks; ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

It sounds like a science fiction film -- a galaxy far, far away is shredded apart gradually by a black hole. The galaxy, which is called W2246-0526 and 12.4 billion light years from Earth, is the most luminous in the universe, according to a 2015 NASA study. If all galaxies were the same distance from us, this one would shine the brightest. In new research, published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, this shiniest of galaxies is expelling incredibly turbulent gases, which has never been evidenced in this kind of space body before.

"It is like a pot of boiling water being heated up by a nuclear reactor in the center," Tanio Diaz-Santos of the Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, Chile, lead author of a new study about this galaxy, said in a press release.

The galaxy is essentially self-cannibilizing, tearing itself apart, according to Roberto Assef, astronomer with the Universidad Diego Portales and leader of the observing team at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile.

"The momentum and energy of the particles of light deposited in the gas are so great that they are pushing the gas out in all directions," Assef added.

The research team detected large amounts of ionized carbon that were in a "turbulent state" flowing through the galaxy. What is causing this disturbance? A supermassive black hole resides at the galaxy's center, pulling together swirling gases and other matter to create an object known as an accretion disk. This disk causes friction that produces a level of brightness that equals that of 300 trillion suns combined.

This phenomenon is not unprecedented -- astronomers have previously recorded examples of gas turbulence in supermassive black holes -- but usually those gaseous winds flow in specific directions and don't circulate across the entire galaxy.

"The 'boiling' gas is not in the accretion disk. The whole galaxy is being disturbed," Peter Eisenhardt, project scientist for WISE, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, said in the release.

So, what is the final result of this galaxy essentially swallowing itself?

"A likely finale would be that the galaxy will blow out all of the gas and dust that is surrounding it, and we would see the accretion disk without its dust cover -- what we call a quasar," Assef added.

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