Supermassive Black Holes Are 10 Billion Times More Massive Than the Sun

Artist's concept of a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy; Credit: NASA JPL
Artist's concept of a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy; Credit: NASA JPL
The next time you take a trip into deep space, make sure that you avoid the galaxies of NGC 3842 and NGC 4889 because you just might get yourself sucked into one of the two largest black holes in the known universe.

Recently discovered by an international team of astronomers, these two black holes form the center of the galaxies NGC 3842 and NGC 4889, and are located over 300 million light years from Earth. They're at least as heavy as 10 billion Suns, according to the University of California, Berkeley, and threaten to consume anything and everything within an area that's five times the size of our own solar system.

What's most fascinating to scientists isn't just that these massive beasts are large, but they also may be the remnants of quasars--galactic nuclei that typically surround a black hole. Quasars are perhaps the most luminous, powerful, and energetic objects in the universe, and are often found at the centers of young galaxies like NGC 4261, 3C 273 (the brightest galaxy to appear in the Earth's sky), and perhaps even our own Milky Way Galaxy.

Basically, at the center of a typical young galaxy is a small black hole surrounded by a quasar, which is itself powered by the black hole. As the black hole sucks in more and more matter, it grows increasingly powerful and more massive, and it eventually sucks in the quasar that once surrounded it.

Interestingly enough, some quasars are so massive that they have jets of gas shooting out of them that extend many light years into space. These jets are formed from matter that gets torn apart as it approaches the black hole and releases some matter and energy. According to the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Tennessee, the galaxy NGC 4261 has a jet that stretches 88 thousand light years from its black hole.


NGC 4261 Quasar Gas Jets Spill 88,000 light years; Credit: NASA
NGC 4261 Quasar Gas Jets Spill 88,000 light years; Credit: NASA

These two supermassive black holes probably used to have massive quasars just like NGC 4261, but the black holes went unnoticed for so long because they have sucked up everything around them. The massive galaxies that orbit them are well out of the black hole's event horizons--the point of no return that not even light can escape.

According to UC Berkeley graduate student Nicholas McConnell, these black holes have an event horizon 200 times larger than the Earth's orbit, and their a gravitational influence is so strong that it affects objects within a 4,000-light-year diameter. The researchers say that these black holes are 2,500 times as massive as the black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.

The search for these supermassive black holes was conducted based on the results of computer simulations UC Berkeley astronomy professor Chung-Pei Ma that dealt with galaxy mergers. As you can imagine, these supermassive black holes were found in equally supermassive galaxies that may contain as many as one trillion stars.

[Dunlap Institute (Vimeo), UC Berkeley; Images: NASA Hubble (Wikipedia), NASA JPL]

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