The discovery of the Voorwerp is definitely still keeping us busy as we’re trying to understand it. To recap what we know: the Voorwerp is a bit of a giant hydrogen cloud next to the galaxy IC 2497. The supermassive black hole at the heart of IC 2497 has been munching on vast quantities of gas and dust and, since black holes are messy eaters, turned the center of IC 2497 into a super-bright quasar. The Voorwerp is a reflection of the light emitted by this quasar. The only hitch is that we don’t see the quasar. While the team at ASTRON has spotted a weak radio source in the heart, that radio source alone is far too little to power the Voorwerp. It’s like trying to light up a whole sports pitch with a single light bulb – what you really need is a floodlight (quasar). We’ve been working hard on the X-ray observations that will give us a final answer whether there’s a quasar clevely hiding in IC 2497, or whether the black hole has somehow abruptly stopped feeding.
In the meantime, what we want to know is if there are more Voorwerps, or if Hanny’s Voorwerp is all we have in the local universe. This turns out to be harder than it sounds because asking a computer to go search a massive data set like Sloan for smudges that have this weird blue-purple-y colour is rather difficult. In fact, the Computer said ‘no.’ Fortunately, we could ask you folks to find weird blue-purpley-y stuff around galaxies because such a vaguely phrased question of a human makes sense. And you found more Voorwerps. Since they’re smaller, we dubbed them Voorwerpjes, or `Little Objects’ in Dutch (I look forward to the day that ‘Objects’ are a class of astronomical objects!).
Bill and his team have been taking a look at all the potential Voorwerpjes that you found and many of them are similar to the Voorwerp in the sense that they are clouds of gas lit up by an accreting black hole. All these clouds, like the Voorwerp, are many tens to hundreds of thousands of light years away from the centers of the galaxies they surround. So like with the Voorwerp and IC 2497, we know for a fact that the black hole was feeding tens to hundreds of thousands of years ago. What we’d like to know is if they are still feeding. If not, then clearly black hole meals can end rather abruptly (10,000 years is nothing to a billion solar mass black hole). If that’s the case, then black hole feeding is stranger and less stable than we previously thought….
To find out, we submitted a proposal, again to our friend XMM-Newton, to take X-ray snapshots of the galaxies with the top Voorwerpjes. Fingers crossed that we get the time.