Astronomers discover biggest black holes ever (Update)

Dec 05, 2011
An artist's concept of stars moving in the central regions of a giant elliptical galaxy that harbors a supermassive black hole. Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA artwork by Lynette Cook

University of California, Berkeley, astronomers have discovered the largest black holes to date two monsters with masses equivalent to 10 billion suns that are threatening to consume anything, even light, within a region five times the size of our solar system.

These black holes are at the centers of two galaxies more than 300 million light years from Earth, and may be the dark remnants of some of the very bright galaxies, called quasars, that populated the early universe.

"In the early universe, there were lots of quasars or active galactic nuclei, and some were expected to be powered by black holes as big as 10 billion solar masses or more," said Chung-Pei Ma, UC Berkeley professor of astronomy. "These two new supermassive black holes are similar in mass to young quasars, and may be the missing link between quasars and the supermassive black holes we see today."

Black holes are dense concentrations of matter that produce such strong gravitational fields that even light cannot escape. While exploding stars, called supernovas, can leave behind black holes the mass of a single star like the sun, supermassive black holes have presumably grown from the merger of other black holes or by capturing huge numbers of stars and massive amounts of gas.

"These black holes may shed light on how black holes and their surrounding galaxies have nurtured each other since the early universe," said UC Berkeley graduate student Nicholas McConnell, first author of a paper on the discovery being published in the Dec. 8 issue of the British journal Nature by McConnell, Ma and their colleagues at the university of Toronto, Texas and Michigan, as well as by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Arizona.

To date, approximately 63 supermassive black holes have been found sitting in the cores of nearby galaxies. The largest for more than three decades was a 6.3 billion solar mass black hole in the center of the nearby galaxy M87.

One of the newly discovered black holes is 9.7 billion solar masses and located in the elliptical galaxy NGC 3842, the brightest galaxy in the Leo cluster of galaxies, 320 million light years away in the direction of the constellation Leo. The second is as large or larger and sits in the elliptical galaxy NGC 4889, the brightest galaxy in the Coma cluster about 336 million light years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Coma Berenices.

NGC 3842 (upper left) is the brightest galaxy in a rich cluster of galaxies. The black hole at its center (shown in middle as artist's concept) is surrounded by stars distorted by its immense gravitational field. The black hole, which is seven times larger than Pluto's orbit, would dwarf our solar system (inset). Credit: Pete Marenfeld

According to McConnell, these black holes have an event horizon – the "abandon all hope" edge from which not even light can escape – that is 200 times the orbit of Earth, or five times the orbit of Pluto. Beyond the event horizon, each black hole has a gravitational influence that would extend over a sphere 4,000 light years across.

"For comparison, these black holes are 2,500 times as massive as the black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, whose event horizon is one fifth the orbit of Mercury," McConnell said.

The brightest galaxy in a cluster

These 10 billion solar mass black holes have remained hidden until now, presumably because they are living in quiet retirement, Ma said. During their active quasar days some 10 billion years ago, they cleared out the neighborhood by swallowing vast quantities of gas and dust. The surviving gas became stars that have since orbited peacefully. According to Ma, these monster black holes, and their equally monster galaxies that likely contain a trillion stars, settled into obscurity at the center of galaxy clusters.

Ma, a theoretical astrophysicist, decided to look for these huge black holes in relatively nearby clusters of elliptical galaxies as a result of her computer simulations of galaxy mergers.

Astronomers believe that many, if not all, galaxies have a massive black hole at the center, with the larger galaxies harboring larger black holes. The largest black holes are found in elliptical galaxies, which are thought to result from the merger of two spiral galaxies. Ma found, however, that mergers of elliptical galaxies themselves could produce the largest elliptical galaxies as well as supermassive black holes approaching 10 billion solar masses. These black holes can grow even larger by consuming gas left over from a merger.

"Multiple mergers are one way to build up these behemoths," Ma said.

To look for these monster black holes, Ma teamed up with observational astronomers, including James Graham, a professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley and the University of Toronto, and Karl Gebhardt, a professor of astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin. Gebhardt had obtained the mass of the previous record holder in galaxy M87.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
UC-Berkeley astronomers discover the largest black holes ever detected. NSFs Lisa-Joy Zgorski moderates a press conference featuring Chung-Pei Ma, professor of astrophysics, at the University of California, Berkeley and Nicholas McConnell, a Berkeley grad student and first author of the paper that describes this exciting discovery in the December 8th issue of the journal Nature. Credit: National Science Foundation

Using telescopes at the Gemini and Keck observatories in Hawaii and at McDonald Observatory in Texas, McConnell and Ma obtained detailed spectra of the diffuse starlight at the centers of several massive elliptical galaxies, each the brightest galaxy in its cluster. So far, they've analyzed the orbital velocities of stars in two galaxies and calculated the central masses to be in the quasar range. Having such huge masses contained within a volume only a few hundred light years across led the astronomers to conclude that the masses were massive black holes.

"If all that mass were in stars, then we would see their light", Ma said.

Modeling these massive galaxies required use of state-of-the-art supercomputers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center.

"For an astronomer, finding these insatiable black holes is like finally encountering people nine feet tall, whose great height had only been inferred from fossilized bones. How did they grow so large?" Ma said. "This rare find will help us understand whether these black holes had very tall parents or ate a lot of spinach."

Explore further: Astronomer confirms a new "Super-Earth" planet

More information: Nature journal announcement:

Largest black holes observed to date (pp 215-218; N&V)

The discovery of the two biggest supermassive black holes ever found is reported in Nature this week. The black holes are much bigger than predicted by extrapolating from observations of attributes of the host galaxy. These results suggest that processes influencing the growth of the largest galaxies and their black holes differ from those influencing smaller galaxies.

All massive galaxies with a spheroidal component are thought to harbour supermassive black holes at their centres. The luminosities and brightness fluctuations of quasars in the early Universe suggest that some are powered by black holes with masses over ten billion times greater than our Sun. However, the largest-known black hole found so far, residing in the giant elliptical galaxy Messier 87, has a mass of 6.3 billion solar masses.

Measuring data from two nearby galaxies, NGC 3842 and NGC 4889, Chung-Pei Ma and colleagues reveal that larger supermassive black holes do exist. NGC 3842 has a central black hole with a mass of 9.7 billion solar masses, and NGC 4889 has a black hole of comparable or larger mass.

Provided by University of California - Berkeley

4.8 /5 (26 votes)

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User comments : 22

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dtyarbrough
1.2 / 5 (22) Dec 05, 2011
As long a physicists believe that gamma rays are billions of times more energetic than infra red, they will continue to make these grossly overestimated guesses as to the nature of black holes, quasars, gamma ray bursters, etc.
Tuxford
1 / 5 (9) Dec 05, 2011
'A different evolutionary process...

Acknowledgement that accretion cannot explain the growth of the larger black holes? Yes, larger core stars grow from new-matter nucleation within at a faster rate than smaller black holes. As they grow, they blow Fermi bubbles periodically.

http://www.physor...ole.html
Bonkers
4.9 / 5 (17) Dec 05, 2011
dtyarbrough:
do you fancy offering any proof, or even evidence, for your assertion that E=hv is incorrect?
Or is it a mere belief?
finitesolutions
2.2 / 5 (13) Dec 05, 2011
If I would have been god I would have made the universe way more simple. Just a few atoms there. As it is right now it is too complicated and gets ever more complicated. Screw you god with your infinite mysteries.
Starcaptain
1 / 5 (1) Dec 05, 2011
Lol I'd rather keep searching forever than play around for a few years and say. "Now what?"
jsdarkdestruction
1 / 5 (1) Dec 05, 2011
awesome, what of the 18 billion solar mass black hole OJ287 though?
350
3.5 / 5 (11) Dec 05, 2011
Inb4 omatard w/ neutron repulsion
FrankHerbert
0.9 / 5 (54) Dec 05, 2011
Just report omapaedo whenever he posts. Maybe calling him out in advance will scare him off like Kevinrtrs.
bewertow
1.8 / 5 (5) Dec 05, 2011
If I would have been god I would have made the universe way more simple. Just a few atoms there. As it is right now it is too complicated and gets ever more complicated. Screw you god with your infinite mysteries.


God doesn't exist you n00b
Burnerjack
2.2 / 5 (9) Dec 05, 2011
"God is dead"- Neitzsche
"Neitzsche is dead"- God
One is maybe
One is absolute
MorituriMax
1 / 5 (4) Dec 05, 2011
to consume anything, even light,

Wow, black holes even absorb light? There's a shocker, I've never heard that.. well yes I did, all the way back when Disney's "The Black Hole" came out.

Honestly? I really hope that was sarcasm.
Starcaptain
1 / 5 (2) Dec 05, 2011
"God is dead"- Neitzsche
"Neitzsche is dead"- God
One is maybe
One is absolute


Ya'll haven't been told yet. I'm Maybee.
MorituriMax
1 / 5 (4) Dec 05, 2011
If I would have been god I would have made the universe way more simple. Just a few atoms there. As it is right now it is too complicated and gets ever more complicated. Screw you god with your infinite mysteries.
It's only complicated if you're not a God. Duh.

Burnerjack, I rated your paraphrase of the Nietzsche joke a 1 since you butchered it. You have to include the DATES to get the punchline to work.
dtyarbrough
1 / 5 (11) Dec 05, 2011
Bonkers:
It is my belief that E is inversely proportional to frequency. Also while gamma through infrared are photons, lower frequencys are waves and not unassociated with photons. I believe that the socalled wavelength of light is the actual diameter of the photons and their associated magnetic fields. The larger the field, the more energy. There are untold examples that I could point out to demonstrate this, and I do in some of my articles on scribd.com. Just one example is the fact that x-rays have been created in a vacumn by peeling scotch tape from a roll. Scientist believe the solar corona is millions of times hotter than the surface of the sun, just because it emits xrays. Gamma rays bursts are thought to generate more energy in a second than the sun does in 10 billion years. Rediculous.
Kristian_Pinkerton
1.7 / 5 (10) Dec 05, 2011
Now picture this, all of these black holes that we see recycling the raw material in the universe. Some massive some stellar mass and yet the universe started as a quantum fluctuation in a really small space then expanded exponentially like it's neighbouring universes, observation of the Cosmic Background Radiation. Now we are recreating the BIG BANG in our heavy ion collisions at the LHC, but in a very small space. Lets hope that the very small space is not relative to the creation of our universe. Thus we may trigger a quantum black hole or a mini big bang strange let that grows exponentially, thus surprising us; we don't find higgs but more the spark that ignited creation 7 days 7 night silly monkeys. :)
Kristian_Pinkerton
1.4 / 5 (9) Dec 05, 2011
I am no crank more of an intrigued observer; I love this site, and physics, plus the universe :) But a little worried that curiosity killed the cat. What if Higgs exists outside of any range, in another dimension detectable by the LHC? But still has an effect on the standard model. These questions excite me. We have cracked the DNA code, we are ever adding to the periodic table, what if the lead programmer GOD, whatever you want to call the architect is so omnipotent and so powerful that we will never crack his programme. Maybe he is using GLTLS/God like Transport Layer encryption. Maybe that is where the other classes lie, such as the higgs class that gives partials mass. After all think about the master class in C the base class and all other classes inherited from that class. If had not been told in the programming books that was there we would have to investigate our way there to find it. Consider some parts of the standard model are beyond simply crancking up the LHC to 14 tev. Ma
FrankHerbert
0.9 / 5 (54) Dec 05, 2011
Maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe.

Try debating something of substance.

Ugg programmers should not try to comprehend physics. They invariably have to relate it all back to their field somehow.
Osiris1
2 / 5 (4) Dec 05, 2011
Some say that black holes have a limit in size. Beyond this limit maybe they just seem to 'disappear'....They have already torn a hole in spacetime and are dragging space with them in three dimensions into the direction of possibly more dimensions. Now suppose at some limit, this three dimensional sinkhole as it were breaks its connection with our normal space, leaving it to either snap back or become a 'wormhole' into superspace or into another universe, possibly budding into even yet a new universe or another part of our universe as a stupendously exploding 'white hole', complete with all the quantum units of space it swallowed over the eons...into a small 'universe' of low density plasma maybe of all kinds of odd 'matters' Remember in a singularity all matter probably loses its identity unless it is compressed to quarks, and then to even lower subunits......ideas?
jsdarkdestruction
3 / 5 (2) Dec 05, 2011
Saying things like this -"Thus we may trigger a quantum black hole or a mini big bang strange let that grows exponentially, thus surprising us; we don't find higgs but more the spark that ignited creation 7 days 7 night silly monkeys."
and this
"what if the lead programmer GOD, whatever you want to call the architect is so omnipotent and so powerful that we will never crack his programme."
are probably why you got called a crank.

"Consider some parts of the standard model are beyond simply crancking up the LHC to 14 tev. Ma"
We are, what you want us to do it would appear is just assume it is and give up and stop looking?
Jayded
5 / 5 (1) Dec 06, 2011
Bonkers:
It is my belief that E is inversely proportional to frequency. Also while gamma through infrared are photons, lower frequencys are waves and not unassociated with photons. I believe that the socalled wavelength of light is the actual diameter of the photons and their associated magnetic fields. The larger the field, the more energy. There are untold examples that I could point out to demonstrate this, and I do in some of my articles on scribd.com. Just one example is the fact that x-rays have been created in a vacumn by peeling scotch tape from a roll. Scientist believe the solar corona is millions of times hotter than the surface of the sun, just because it emits xrays. Gamma rays bursts are thought to generate more energy in a second than the sun does in 10 billion years. Rediculous.


Awesome stuff, worthy of some research
Alexander_Birintzis
not rated yet Dec 08, 2011
I always wondered:Is anybody here really a Physicist or just some random people reading something they can not even understand?

I am really stunned at people who comment on every Science related article without even having the fundamental knowledge of Physics and Astronomy!
Tausch
1 / 5 (2) Jan 25, 2012
1.)I failed the course demanding I understand the mathematics of black hole merger mechanics.

2.)Stephen J. Crothers and I are the best friends.
3.)Gravitational waves don't exist.

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