Malaysian astrophysics PhD student discovers supermassive black hole

Nur Adlyka Ainul Annuar (second left) answers questions at the press conference at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting. — Picture from AAS website
Nur Adlyka Ainul Annuar (second left) answers questions at the press conference at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting. — Picture from AAS website

PETALING JAYA, Jan 10 — A young woman from Muar, Johor, sent the international astronomy community over the moon when she and a group of astronomers announced their discovery of a supermassive black hole.

Nur Adlyka Ainul Annuar, 27, an astrophysics PhD student, has become a star in her own right since the presentation with her British colleagues to the American Astronomical Society in Grapevine, Texas, on Sunday.

In an interview with Malay Mail yesterday, she credited movies like Armageddon and Apollo 13 for inspiring her to explore outer space.

“I have always been fascinated with outer space since I was in primary school, but it was not until I was 13 (when she saw the movies) that I really knew astrophysics is what I wanted to do,” she said.

“Of course, I never imagined my interest would lead me to be a part of such a discovery. I am really humbled to be leading the discovery of one of the hidden black holes.”

The evidence of supermassive black holes is at the centre of two of the galactic neighbours — galaxy NGC 1448, which is “just” 38 million light years away from the Milky Way, and IC 3639, which is 170 million light years away.

Currently pursuing her doctorate study at the Centre of Extragalactic Astronomy, Durham University in United Kingdom, Nur Adlyka's research was focused on trying to find active supermassive black holes shrouded by thick clouds of gas and dust.

“These black holes are relatively close to the Milky Way, but they have remained hidden from us until now. They’re like monsters hiding under your bed,” she said during her presentation.

“Their recent discoveries certainly bring up the question of how many other supermassive black holes we are still missing, even in our nearby universe.”

Nur Adlyka said there was evidence of the presence of an active supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy she was studying.

“We followed up this study and observed the galaxy using several ground-based and space-based telescopes at four different wavelengths,” she said.

“Our data provided the first direct view of this monster and therefore, confirms the previous study.

“Our data also showed the black hole is covered by thick clouds of gas and dust, hiding it from our view, but we managed to view it, mainly using Nasa's hard X-ray energy telescope, NuSTAR.”

The telescope can detect high energy X-ray emissions from the black hole that can penetrate through the thick layers of gas and dust.

“It's like how doctors use X-ray to look at our bone structure,” she said.

Born and raised in Muar,  Nur Adlyka is the second of four siblings. Both her parents are teachers.

“They are ecstatic and beyond proud, especially my parents. My family and friends always knew I wanted to pursue astronomy, but no one, including myself, ever thought I could reach this level,” she said.

“I have also never been on the news before, so this is quite exciting. I am also very proud to carry Malaysia's name to the international platform.”

However, her journey was not a smooth one, with late nights and a lot of travelling to telescope observatories.

“My normal work day starts at 9am and ends at 5pm, but sometimes it could extend until late at night, if I have deadlines, such as writing proposals to use telescopes to collect data. I travel a lot for international conferences and meetings, including in the United Kingdom, United States, Europe and Malaysia,” she said.

“I have also travelled to a ground-based telescope observatory, called the La Silla Observatory, in Chile to collect my data. But since my research is primarily based on space-based telescopes, I have not visited other telescope observatories.”

She said people should not give up when something became too hard to achieve.

“I know first-hand doing your PhD is hard,” she said.

“I would advise researchers to take a short break from their research during the lows. If not, it will keep putting you down and making things worse.

“When you feel better, keep going and don't give up, as the wheel always turns.”

She said although none of her siblings were interested in physics, she always reminded them to follow their dreams and not to succumb to social pressure or let anyone belittle their dreams.

Nur Adlyka is expected to complete her PhD in astrophysics by the end of July. She also holds a BSc in Physics and Astrophysics from University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.

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