An artist's impression of a runaway supermassive black hole that is leaving behind a streak of stars (Credit: NASA, ESA, Leah Hustak -STScI)

Black holes have incredibly powerful gravitational pulls. They usually gobble up everything around them. However, for the first time ever, scientists have found a black hole that is creating millions of stars as it zips through space.

Pieter Van Dokkum, a professor of Astronomy and Physics at Yale University, made the exciting discovery accidentally. He was looking for star clusters in an image captured by NASA's Hubble Telescope when he spotted a light trail.

"I was just scanning through the Hubble image, and then I noticed that we have a little streak. I immediately thought, 'oh, a cosmic ray hitting the camera detector and causing a linear imaging artifact.' When we eliminated cosmic rays, we realized it was still there. It didn't look like anything we've seen before," Dokkum explains.

Professor Dokkum noticed an unusual light streak in this photo captured by the Hubble Telescope (Credit: NASA, ESA, Pieter van Dokkum (Yale); Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale -STScI)

Curious to know where the light trail was coming from, Dokkum and his team decided to investigate further. They used the powerful telescopes at Hawaii's Mauna Kea Observatory. To their astonishment, they discovered that the streak was from a 200,000-light-year-long chain of newborn stars. This is twice the diameter of our Milky Way galaxy.

The scientists say the stars are caused by a supermassive black hole racing through the gas clouds at an unbelievable speed. If it were in our solar system, the black hole, which weighs as much as 20 million Suns, could travel from Earth to the Moon in just 14 minutes. This is too fast for it to catch anything in its path. Instead, it is creating a string of new stars.

"We think we're seeing a wake behind the black hole where the gas cools and is able to form stars. So, we're looking at star formation trailing the black hole," Dokkum said.

The findings were revealed in the Astrophysical Journal Letters on April 6, 2023. The researchers believe there may be more runaway black holes waiting to be discovered. They plan to expand their search once the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope is launched sometime in 2027. The powerful Telescope is designed to image a sky area 100 times larger than the Hubble telescope.