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6 April 2016
Astronomers have uncovered one of the biggest supermassive black holes, with the mass of 17 billion Suns, in an unlikely place: the centre of a galaxy that lies in a quiet backwater of the Universe. The observations, made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and the Gemini Telescope in Hawaii, indicate that these monster objects may be more common than once thought. The results of this study are released in the journal Nature.
Until now, the biggest supermassive black holes — those having more than 10 billion times the mass of our Sun — have only been found at the cores of very large galaxies in the centres of massive galaxy clusters. Now, an international team of astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has discovered a supersized black hole with a mass of 17 billion Suns in the centre of the rather isolated galaxy NGC 1600.
NGC 1600 is an elliptical galaxy which is located not in a cluster of galaxies, but in a small group of about twenty. The group is located 200 million light-years away in the constellation Eridanus. While finding a gigantic supermassive black hole in a massive galaxy within a cluster of galaxies is to be expected, finding one in an average-sized galaxy group like the one surrounding NGC 1600 is much more surprising.
“Even though we already had hints that the galaxy might host an extreme object in the centre, we were surprised that the black hole in NGC 1600 is ten times more massive than predicted by the mass of the galaxy,” explains lead author of the study Jens Thomas from the Max Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Germany.
Ground-based view of NGC 1600
Based on previous Hubble surveys of supermassive black holes, astronomers had discovered a correlation between a black hole’s mass and the mass of its host galaxy’s central bulge of stars: the larger the galaxy bulge, the more massive the black hole is expected to be. “It appears from our finding that this relation does not work so well with extremely massive black holes,” says Thomas. “These monster black holes account for a much larger fraction of the host galaxy’s mass than the previous correlations would suggest.”
Finding this extremely massive black hole in NGC 1600 leads astronomers to ask whether these objects are more common than previously thought. “There are quite a few galaxies the size of NGC 1600 that reside in average-size galaxy groups,” explains co-author Chung-Pei Ma, an astronomer from the University of California, Berkeley, USA, and head of the MASSIVE Survey . “We estimate that these smaller groups are about fifty times more abundant than large, dense galaxy clusters. So the question now is: is this the tip of an iceberg? Maybe there are a lot more monster black holes out there.”
It is assumed that this black hole grew by merging with another supermassive black hole from another galaxy. It may then have continued to grow by gobbling up gas funneled to the core of the galaxy by further galaxy collisions. Thus may also explain why NGC 1600 resides in a sparsely populated region of the Universe and why it is at least three times brighter than its neighbours.
As the supermassive black hole is currently dormant, astronomers were only able to find it and estimate its mass by measuring the velocities of stars close to it, using the Gemini North 8-metre telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Using these data the team discovered that stars lying about 3000 light-years from the core are moving as if there had been many more stars in the core in the distant past. This indicates that most of the stars in this region have been kicked out from the centre of the galaxy.
Hubble and the sunrise over Earth
Archival Hubble images, taken with the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS), support the idea that the two merging supermassive black holes in the distant past gave stars the boot. The NICMOS images revealed that the galaxy’s core is unusually faint, indicating a lack of stars close to the galactic centre. “We estimate that the mass of stars tossed out of the central region of NGC 1600 is equal to 40 billion Suns,” concludes Thomas. “This is comparable to ejecting the entire disc of our Milky Way galaxy.”
 The MASSIVE Survey, which began in 2014, measures the mass of stars, dark matter, and the central black hole of the 100 most massive, nearby galaxies, those larger than 300 billion solar masses and within 350 million light-years of Earth. Among its goals are to find the descendants of luminous quasars that may be sleeping unsuspected in large nearby galaxies and to understand how galaxies form and grow supermassive black holes.
The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.
The study “A 17-billion-solar-mass black hole in a group galaxy with a diffuse core” appeared in the journal Nature.
The international team of astronomers in this study consists of J. Thomas (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Germany), C.-P. Ma (University of California, Berkeley, USA), N. McConnell (Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, Canada), J. Greene (Princeton University, USA), J. Blakeslee (Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, Canada), and R. Janish (University of California, Berkeley, USA).
Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS): http://www.spacetelescope.org/about/general/instruments/nicmos/
Images of Hubble: http://www.spacetelescope.org/images/archive/category/spacecraft/
Link to hubblesite release: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2016/12/
Link to the release of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics: http://www.mpe.mpg.de/6537551/news-20160406
Link to science paper: http://www.spacetelescope.org/static/archives/releases/science_papers/heic1607a.pdf
Images, Video, Text, Credits: NASA/ESA/Hubble/Mathias Jäger/Digital Sky Survey 2/Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics/Jens Thomas.
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