Sleeping giants discovered

December 12, 2011

Astronomers recently discovered the most massive black holes to date. Found in two separate nearby galaxies roughly 300 million light years away from Earth, each black hole has a mass equivalent to 10 billion suns.

"We knew that really large quasars, which are powered by matter falling into black holes, existed in the early universe," said Chung-Pei Ma, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley and co-author of an article that will be published in Nature on December 8.

"What we hadn't yet found was where the remnants of those quasars--equally large black holes--were in the current universe," she said. "The boisterous quasars may have passed through a turbulent youth to become the quiescent giant elliptical galaxies we see today, harboring hidden black holes at their centers."

Black holes are made of matter so dense that even light can't escape their intense gravitational fields. Exploding stars--known as supernovae--can create relatively small black holes only a few times more massive than the sun, but researchers think these monster black holes are formed in different ways, such as multiple smaller black holes merging into one, or voracious growth by swallowing vast amounts of stars and gas while galaxies are forming.

The gigantic black holes discovered by Ma and her colleagues are so enormous they are capable of consuming anything within a region five times the size of Earth's solar system.

Researchers think that most, if not all, galaxies have a black hole at the center. The larger the galaxy, the larger the black hole it contains. Researchers suggest these blacks holes consume tremendous quantities of gas and dust from the central regions of the galaxy, at which point they become "dormant." The surviving gas may become stars that orbit peacefully within the galaxy.

Their quiet nature is part of what makes these sleeping giants so difficult to observe. "Since black holes cannot be seen, we have to detect them by carefully observing their immediate surroundings," said Nicholas McConnell, first author of the paper. "These galaxies contained enormous masses within a small central volume--too much mass to come from stars alone." These and other factors led the group to conclude that most of the mass is contained in massive black holes.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), and using telescopes at the NSF-supported International Gemini Observatory, as well as the Keck and McDonald observatories, McConnell and Ma were able to map the velocities of stars orbiting the centers of massive elliptical galaxies--data the research team did not have the technical capability to obtain just a few years ago. The new results may help astronomers determine how black holes and galaxies form and develop together over the history of the universe.

"Galaxies are the places where stars and planetary systems form, and supermassive black holes in the early universe set the stage for their formation," said Tom Statler, program director for NSF's division of Astronomical Sciences.

"Black holes played a big role in making our universe what it is today."

National Science Foundation

Related Black Hole Articles from Brightsurf:

Black hole or no black hole: On the outcome of neutron star collisions
A new study lead by GSI scientists and international colleagues investigates black-hole formation in neutron star mergers.

The black hole always chirps twice: New clues deciphering the shape of black holes
A team of gravitational-wave scientists led by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) reveal that when two black holes collide and merge, the remnant black hole 'chirps' not once, but multiple times, emitting gravitational waves--intense ripples in the fabric space and time--that inform us about its shape.

Wobbling shadow of the M87 black hole
New analysis from the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration reveals the behavior of the supermassive black hole in the center of the M87 galaxy across multiple years, indicating the crescent-like shadow feature appears to be wobbling.

How to have a blast like a black hole
Scientists at Osaka University have created magnetized-plasma conditions similar to those near a black hole using very intense laser pulses.

Black hole collision may have exploded with light
Astronomers have seen what appears to the first light ever detected from a black hole merger.

Black hole's heart still beating
The first confirmed heartbeat of a supermassive black hole is still going strong more than ten years after first being observed.

Black hole team discovers path to razor-sharp black hole images
A team of researchers have published new calculations that predict a striking and intricate substructure within black hole images from extreme gravitational light bending.

Planets around a black hole?
Theoreticians in two different fields defied the common knowledge that planets orbit stars like the Sun.

Black hole mergers: Cooking with gas
Gravitational wave detectors are finding black hole mergers in the universe at the rate of one per week.

Going against the flow around a supermassive black hole
At the center of a galaxy called NGC 1068, a supermassive black hole hides within a thick doughnut-shaped cloud of dust and gas.

Read More: Black Hole News and Black Hole Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to