February 26, 2013 – An illustration of a black hole the size of nearly 10 billion Suns. Inside it, where gravity is so in- tense that not even light can escape, our solar system is shown to scale: Astronomers are reporting that they have taken the measure of the biggest, baddest black holes yet found in the universe, 10 times the size of our solar system into which billions of Suns have vanished like a guilty thought.
Such holes might be the gravitational cornerstones of galaxies and clues to the fates of violent quasars, the almost supernaturally powerful explosions in the hearts of young galaxies that dominated the early years of the universe.
One of these newly surveyed monsters, which weighs as much as 21 billion Suns, is in an egg-shaped swirl of stars known as NGC 4889, the brightest galaxy in a sprawling cloud of thousands of galaxies about 336 million light-years away in the Coma constellation.
The other black hole, a graveyard for the equivalent of 10 billion Suns, lurks in the center of NGC 3842, a galaxy that anchors another cluster known as Abell 1367, about 331 million light-years away in the Leo Constellation.
These are the most massive reliably measured black holes ever seen.
These results are more than just cool and record-setting. Observations with the Hubble Space Telescope over the years have shown that such monster black holes seem to inhabit the centers of all galaxies — he bigger the galaxy, the bigger the black hole. Researchers said the new work could shed light on the role these black holes play in the formation and evolution of galaxies.
The previous record-holder was in the galaxy M87, a member of the Virgo cluster some 54 million light-years from Earth, where a black hole weighed in at a “mere” 6 billion solar masses. The new black holes, however, were even larger than astronomers had predicted based on the earlier measurements, suggesting that there is something special about how the most massive galaxies are built.
Astronomers used telescopes in Hawaii, Texas and outer space to weigh the black holes in the centers of galaxies by clocking the speeds of stars zooming around them; the faster the stars are going, the more gravity — and thus mass — is needed to keep the stars from flying away.
Black holes are among the weirdest of the predictions of Albert Einstein’s curved-space theory of gravity, general relativity — so weird that Einstein himself did not believe it. He once wrote to a friend that there ought to be a law of nature forbidding such a thing.
Some of his successors have spent their careers studying the implications for physics of objects that can wrap space time around themselves like a magician’s cloak and disappear.
Such is the fate, astronomers agree, of some massive stars once they run out of fuel and collapse upon themselves. Indeed the galaxy is littered with stellar-mass black holes detectable by the X-rays spit by doomed matter swirling around them like water in a drain. And there seem to be giant ones in the heart of every galaxy.
One question astronomers would like answered is how these black holes got so big, billions of times bigger than a typical dead star.
The Master of Disaster