Scientists just found the biggest supermassive black hole ever

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Jun 26, 2015

Black holes are massive things. Supermassive black holes, found at the center of most spiral galaxies, are packed with hundreds of millions (if not billions) of times the mass of a star, yet they fit into relatively small spaces. The point is, they've all got lots of mass, but astronomers just found one that makes every other black hole ever seen look small.

The black hole was discovered as part of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Massive Galaxy Survey conducted using the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the University of Texas at Austin. Among the 800 galaxies targeted for the survey was NGC 1277, a lenticular galaxy 220 million light-years away from us, in the constellation Perseus. Though it's only a tenth the size of our Milky Way galaxy, the black hole at the center dwarfed the one at the center of the Milky Way.

The Milky Way's black hole, Sgr A*, is about 4.1 million times more massive than our sun. That's nothing to smirk at, but the black hole at the center of NGC 1277 is a whopping 17 billion times more massive than the sun, and makes up 14 percent of the entire mass of its home galaxy.

"This is a really oddball galaxy," said Karl Gebhardt of The University of Texas at Austin, a team member on the research. "It's almost all black hole. This could be the first object in a new class of galaxy-black hole systems."

The NGC 1277 has a radius of about 300 astronomical units (an AU is measured at 92,955,807.273 miles, or approximately the distance between the Earth and the sun), making it 11 times wider than Neptune's orbit (which is itself almost 30 times wider than our own solar orbit). If you were traveling at the speed of light, and you wanted to fly across this black hole, it would still take you four days.

The Hobby-Eberly survey's goal was to examine the relationship between galaxies and the black holes at their centers, and the discovery of the NGC 1277 black hole has definitely left the research team with a new understanding of how black holes emerge.

"The mass of this black hole is much higher than expected," said Gebhardt, "it leads us to think that very massive galaxies have a different physical process in how their black holes grow."

Though this black hole dwarfs every other one found, the survey still has 100 galaxies to go, which of course leads us to ask: Is there a bigger one out there?

(Via Universe Today)