Supermassive Black Hole Just Discovered May Be The Biggest One Yet

A supermassive black hole just discovered by scientists just might be the biggest one yet.

As previously reported by the Inquisitr, supermassive black holes are thought to contain between a million and billion times the mass as regular stellar black holes.

According to the journal Nature, astronomer’s have discovered a new supermassive black hole containing 17 billion times the mass of the sun at the center of the galaxy NGC 1600. The supermassive black hole found by the McDonald Observatory in Texas is slightly larger than the largest one ever recorded, which weighed in at a maximum of 21 billion solar masses.

NPR reports that the finding suggests supermassive black holes like this one might be more common than astronomers previously thought.

The galaxy found in the constellation Eridanus is 200 million light-years away and is now home to one of the biggest supermassive black holes ever known.

Before the discovery, scientists believed such huge black holes could only be found in the centers of massive galaxies at the center of galaxy clusters. What sets NGC 1600 apart is that it was discovered in a rather isolated galaxy.

The discovery has scientists perplexed, and as a result, they are rethinking previous assumptions that monster black holes only reside in dense clusters of galaxies.

Chung-Pei Ma, an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley, and head of the MASSIVE Survey, said the discovery is very surprising since “the black hole is much bigger than we expected for the size of the galaxy or where this galaxy lives, the environment.”

“That’s the puzzling part — or the intriguing part — of the result. There may be more NGC 1600s out there lurking at more ordinary sites, like small towns in the U.S. rather than Manhattan.”

According to the researchers, the initial observations of the black hole weren’t detailed enough to see the spectrum of light from the galaxy’s center clearly, but as more details came in, they could tell they were looking at something very unusual, according to Ma.

“It was a little bit like looking at a hurricane from very far away. We couldn’t quite tell how big this hurricane was, this black hole was, but the hurricane was so big that we already started to feel the wind using this coarser data.”

The largest supermassive black hole ever found thus far contains up to 21 billion times the mass of the sun and resides in the incredibly dense Coma Cluster, which includes more than 1,000 identified galaxies.

To compare just how massive the black hole truly is, scientists say the black hole lurking at the center of the Milky Way galaxy totals around four million solar masses.

Small black holes form when massive stars collapse. The supermassive ones at the centers of galaxies are presumed to grow so large because they take in a lot of dust and debris early on in their lives and by colliding and merging with other black holes, which occurs when two galaxies combine, explained Ma.

“The way we understand how galaxies and black holes grow to such high masses is from how galaxies form. Typically, we believe they form by emerging galaxy collisions, or cannibalism — they collide together, like the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy: we are approaching each other, and we’re going to collide one day. So we are going to form a bigger galaxy, and the two individual black holes of the progenitor galaxies would come together to form a bigger black hole.”

Because it takes more galaxies colliding to create supermassive black holes, it was assumed that a more crowded cluster of galaxies would be more favorable for the creation of these cosmic monsters. However, NGC 1600 is in a much sparser area and seems to debunk that theory.

There is one explanation, according to Ma.

“One possibility for how to get a big mass is maybe NGC 1600 had eaten up its friends. It gobbled up its friends, and during the process it acquired their black holes — maybe it got to be so big at the expense of its friends.”

Another explanation is that the supermassive black hole could have been in a region of the universe that had a lot of gas early in its life, Ma said.

“The universe contained a lot of gas when it was younger. Maybe it got really, really big when the galaxy was very young.”

Avi Loeb, the chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University, called the new work on the supermassive black hole an exciting discovery.

“It would be interesting to find more black holes of this mass range and check whether this is an outlier or typical case. The fundamental question is, which environmental conditions nurture the growth of the most massive black holes? We would love to know the answer to that question through future studies like this one.”

[Photo by NASA/Getty Images]