A giant black hole that is the rare combination of massively large and incredibly old could change the way science understands how black holes grow — and therefore could change the the theories scientists use to understand the universe, researchers say. Previously, scientists did not believe that a black hole could grow to the massively giant size of the newly discovered entity in a relatively short period of time, in cosmic terms.
The scientists who discovered the incredible black hole have christened the object SDSS J010013.021280225.8, but while that name might be as boring as names can get, there is nothing boring about this giant black whole, which weighs in at 12 billion times the mass of Earth's sun.
While every galaxy in the universe is believed by science to have a black hole at its center, the black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy weighs the equivalent of only 3 million suns. In other words, the newly discovered giant black hole is 4,000 times the size of the black hole at the center of our own home galaxy.
In addition, this giant black hole is at the center of a quasar — a light-emitting cloud of matter being swallowed by the black hole — that is 420 trillion, with a "t," times brighter than our sun, and 40,000 times brighter than the whole Milky Way galaxy.
But as mind-boggling as those figures may be, what really has scientists stunned and excited about the discovery — by scientists based at China's Peking University, but working at observatories at numerous other locations including Hawaii and Arizona — is the remarkable age of the newly discovered black hole.
Previously, physicists and astronomers believed that giant black holes would take billions of years to gain the weight that makes them truly "giant." But this black hole, according to the scientists' calculations, was formed when the universe was in its infancy, at just 875 million years old.
The universe today is believed to be about 14 billion years old.
To give you an idea of how old that is, think of each year as one second on the clock. In that case, the universe would have been less than 28 years old when the giant black hole formed. But today, if each year equalled one second, the universe would be almost 444 years old.
"Black holes take time to grow," said University of Arizona scientist Xiaohui Fanm, one of the authors of the paper announcing the discovery. "It starts from a seed and grows over time. Then slowly, over time it accrues material to make it bigger and bigger. This is one is a giant but more like a baby in age."
"Based on previous research, this is the largest black hole found for that period of time," said astrophysicist Dr Fuyan Bian of Australian National University. "Current theory is for a limit to how fast a black hole can grow, but this black hole is too large for that theory."
Nonetheless, the newly discovered giant black hole is not the largest black hole ever found. That honor belongs to a super-giant black hole discovered in 2012 at the center of a galaxy 250 million light years from Earth. That black hole is estimated to weigh the equivalent of 17 billion suns.