Astronomers Find Biggest Black Holes Yet
Illustration by Pete Marenfeld/National Optical Astronomy Observatory
An illustration of a black hole the size of nearly 10 billion Suns. Inside it, where gravity is so in- tense that not even light can escape, our solar system is shown to scale.
By DENNIS OVERBYE
Published: December 5, 2011
Don’t get too close.
Enlarge This Image
Lynette Cook/Gemini Observatory via Nature, via Associated Press
An artist’s conception of stars moving in the central regions of a giant elliptical galaxy that harbors a black hole.
Readers shared their thoughts on this article.
Read All Comments (293) »
Astronomers are reporting that they have taken the measure of the biggest, baddest black holes yet found in the universe, abyssal yawns 10 times the size of our solar system into which billions of Suns have vanished like a guilty thought.
Such holes, they say, might be the gravitational cornerstones of galaxies and clues to the fates of violent quasars, the almost supernaturally powerful explosions in the hearts of young galaxies that dominated the early years of the universe.
One of these newly surveyed monsters, which weighs as much as 21 billion Suns, is in an egg-shaped swirl of stars known as NGC 4889, the brightest galaxy in a sprawling cloud of thousands of galaxies about 336 million light-years away in the Coma constellation.
The other black hole, a graveyard for the equivalent of 9.7 billion Suns, more or less, lurks in the center of NGC 3842, a galaxy that anchors another cluster known as Abell 1367, about 331 million light-years away in Leo.
“These are the most massive reliably measured black holes ever,” Nicholas J. McConnell, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an e-mail, referring to the new observations.
These results are more than just cool and record-setting. Observations with the Hubble Space Telescope over the years have shown that such monster black holes seem to inhabit the centers of all galaxies — the bigger the galaxy, the bigger the black hole. Researchers said the new work could shed light on the role these black holes play in the formation and evolution of galaxies.
The previous record-holder was in the galaxy M87, a member of the Virgo cluster some 54 million light-years from here, where a black hole weighed in at a mere 6.3 billion solar masses. The new black holes, however, were even larger than astronomers had predicted based on the earlier measurements, suggesting that there is something special about how the most massive galaxies are built.
“Measurements of these massive black holes will help us understand how their host galaxies were assembled, and how the holes achieved such monstrous mass,” Mr. McConnell said.
Mr. McConnell and his thesis adviser, Chung-Pei Ma, led a team of astronomers who used telescopes in Hawaii, Texas and outer space to weigh the black holes in the centers of galaxies by clocking the speeds of stars zooming around them; the faster the stars are going, the more gravity — and thus mass — is needed to keep the stars from flying away. They report their work in the journal Nature, which will be published online on Wednesday.
Martin Rees, a cosmologist at Cambridge University, called the new work “an incremental step,” noting that the study of these monsters has been a part of his life for a long time. “It’s good to learn about even bigger ones,” he said.
Black holes, regions of space where gravity is so intense that not even light can escape from it, are among the weirdest of the predictions of Albert Einstein’s curved-space theory of gravity, general relativity — so weird that Einstein himself did not believe it. He once wrote to a friend that there ought to be a law of nature forbidding such a thing.
But he was wrong. And some of his successors, like Dr. Rees and a colleague at Cambridge, Stephen Hawking, have spent their careers studying the implications for physics of objects that can wrap spacetime around themselves like a magician’s cloak and disappear.
Such is the fate, astronomers agree, of some massive stars once they run out of fuel and collapse upon themselves. Indeed the galaxy is littered with stellar-mass black holes detectable by the X-rays spit by doomed matter swirling around them like water in a drain. And there seem to be giant ones in the heart of every galaxy.
One question astronomers would like answered is how these black holes got so big, billions of times bigger than a typical dead star. Dr. Ma described it as a kind of nature-versus-nurture argument, explaining that black holes could grow by merging with other black holes as galaxies merge to get bigger — “nature” — or by swallowing gas around them — “nurture.”
“It’s a bit like asking: Are taller children produced by taller parents or by eating a lot of spinach?” Dr. Ma wrote in an e-mail. “For black holes we are not sure.”
Astronomers also think the supermassive black holes in galaxies could be the missing link between the early universe and today. In the early days of the universe, quasars, thought to be powered by giant black holes in cataclysmic feeding frenzies, were fountaining energy into space.
Where are those quasars now? The new work supports a growing suspicion that those formerly boisterous black holes are among us now, but, having stopped their boisterous growth, are sleeping.
Mr. McConnell said, “Our discovery of extremely massive black holes in the largest present-day galaxies suggests that these galaxies could be the ancient remains of voracious ancestors.”
Let’s try not to awaken them.