Supermassive black holes are popping up everywhere

7 Apr 20168 Shares

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This computer-simulated image shows a supermassive black hole at the core of a galaxy. The black region in the centre represents the black hole's event horizon, where no light can escape the massive object’s gravitational grip. Image via NASA/ESA/Anderson/van der Marel/STScI

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One of the largest-ever supermassive black holes, found in one of the universe’s more sparse areas, has blown astronomers’ minds, with many wondering just how many are out there?

Weighing the equivalent of 17 billion suns, a recently-discovered supermassive black hole has thrown a spanner in the works for astronomers. Previously, it was thought the more populated the system, the larger the black hole.

But, considering the galaxy NGC 1600 is the opposite side of the sky to where most major supermassive black holes are, a rethink is in order. The Coma Cluster is the dense, star-filled domain of many a black hole, with one of the members on the discovery team calling NGC 1600 a desert in comparison.

A sky survey image of the massive galaxy NGC 1600, and a Hubble Space Telescope closeup of the bright center of the galaxy where the 17-billion-solar-mass black hole – or binary black hole – resides, via ESA/Hubble/STScI

A sky survey image of the massive galaxy NGC 1600, and a Hubble Space Telescope closeup of the bright center of the galaxy where the 17-billion-solar-mass black hole – or binary black hole – resides, via ESA/Hubble/STScI

Chung-Pei Ma, a UC Berkeley professor of astronomy and head of the MASSIVE Survey study of major galaxies, led the recent discovery, noting numerous equivalent sparse galaxies that have yet to be truly investigated.

“Rich groups of galaxies like the Coma Cluster are very, very rare, but there are quite a few galaxies the size of NGC 1600 that reside in average-size galaxy groups,” Ma said.

“So the question now is, ‘Is this the tip of an iceberg?’ Maybe there are a lot more monster black holes out there that don’t live in a skyscraper in Manhattan, but in a tall building somewhere in the mid-western plains.”

The biggest supermassive black holes – those roughly 10 billion times the mass of our sun – have been found at the cores of very large galaxies in regions of the universe packed with other large galaxies. In fact, the current record holder tips the scale at 21 billion suns and resides in the crowded Coma Cluster that consists of more than 1,000 galaxies.

In related news closer to home, last month scientists saw a major eruption of matter from within a black hole (not supermassive) – something which hasn’t been seen in nearly 30 years.

Illustration of matter circling a black hole. Image via NASA/ESA

Illustration of matter circling a black hole. Image via NASA/ESA

The black hole designated V404 Cygnus, located approximately 7,800 light years away from Earth, is best known for being the first black hole discovered within our own galaxy and, due to its proximity, astronomers are able to see its major events in considerable detail.

Last year, for the first time ever, NASA witnessed the moment a supermassive black hole shot a giant beam of X-ray light out of its core, lending further clues to how coronas are shaped.

Coronas are sources of extremely energetic particles that produce some of the light in black holes, though their shape and position within one of space’s biggest mysteries has been up for debate by astronomers for years.

Artist’s concept of a supermassive black hole, surrounded by a swirling disk of material falling onto it. The purplish ball of light depicted launching from the black hole is its corona. The launch of the corona may generate an X-ray flare, via NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Artist’s concept of a supermassive black hole, surrounded by a swirling disk of material falling onto it. The purplish ball of light depicted launching from the black hole is its corona. The launch of the corona may generate an X-ray flare, via NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Gordon Hunt is senior communications and context executive at NDRC. He previously worked as a journalist with Silicon Republic.

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