Astronomers Spot the Most Massive Black Hole Yet Seen

    November 29, 2012
    Sean Patterson
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Astronomers have measured the mass of what could be the most massive black hole yet discovered. The object, located at the center of the galaxy NGC 1277, is the equivalent of 17 billion Suns and makes up 14% of it’s galaxy’s mass. A paper on the black hole was published today in the journal Nature.

NGC1277 is only 10% of the size of the Milky Way galaxy, and sits 200 million light-years away in the constellation Perseus. The image of the galaxy seen above was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The supermassive black hole at its center has an event horizon (the distance at which not even light can escape the object’s gravity) that is 11 times as wide as Neptune’s orbit.

“This is a really oddball galaxy,” said Karl Gebhardt co-author of the study and Astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s almost all black hole. This could be the first object in a new class of galaxy-black hole systems.”

The new findings were taken from observations by the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory. The telescope’s Massive Galaxy Survey (MGS) is seeking to better understand how black holes and galaxies form and evolve together.

“At the moment there are three completely different mechanisms that all claim to explain the link between black hole mass and host galaxies’ properties,” said Remco van den Bosch, lead author of the study. “We do not understand yet which of these theories is best.”

Astronomers currently know the mass of fewer than 100 black holes in galaxies, and the process of measuring them is time-consuming. The MGS hopes to cut down on the number of galaxies astronomers need to examine closely.

“When trying to understand anything, you always look at the extremes: the most massive and the least massive,” said Gebhardt. “We chose a very large sample of the most massive galaxies in the nearby universe,”

(Image courtesy NASA/ESA/Andrew C. Fabian)