This is one of the most massive black holes ever discovered.
A recent study has revealed that the Abell 1201 cluster, which houses a massive elliptical galaxy, also contains a supermassive black hole at its center, which is among the largest known objects in the universe. According to previous analyses, the black hole was already believed to be larger than most known black holes, but this latest study has revealed that it is bigger than certain galaxies, with an estimated mass of 32 billion solar masses, give or take two. This puts it on the upper limit of how large black holes can theoretically become, making it a truly exciting discovery.
“This particular black hole, which is roughly 30 billion times the mass of our Sun, is one of the biggest ever detected and on the upper limit of how large we believe black holes can theoretically become, so it is an extremely exciting discovery,” lead author Dr James Nightingale, Department of Physics, Durham University, said in a statement.
Black holes are notoriously difficult to study because of their nature. Being “black,” they do not emit any radiation that can be observed directly, including light. However, their strong gravitational pull can have an effect on their surroundings, and this effect can be studied to learn more about them. For instance, gravitational waves from small black holes merging can be detected, and radio waves from the closest region around a black hole, as was the case with the one at the center of the Milky Way, can also be observed. In addition, if a black hole is actively feeding, its gravitational pull can heat up the surrounding material so much that it emits radiation, such as x-rays, which can be detected by astronomers.
The researchers used a different approach to study the black hole at the center of the Abell 1201 cluster. They simulated the gravitational lensing effect caused by massive objects, such as galaxies or clusters of galaxies, which can warp space-time and magnify background objects, making it easier to study them. Black holes themselves can act as gravitational lenses, and the team simulated supermassive black holes of different sizes within massive galaxies to study their effects. They found that their model with a huge supermassive black hole matched observations made by the Hubble Space Telescope of Abell 1201, which is located 2.7 billion light-years from Earth.
To put the size of this black hole into perspective, it is worth noting that one of the largest satellite galaxies of the Milky Way, the Small Magellanic Cloud, has a mass of 6.5 billion solar masses, which is only one-fifth of the mass of this singular black hole. Despite the difficulty in directly observing black holes, simulations and observations such as these offer a glimpse into the wonders of the universe and help us better understand the nature of these mysterious objects.
“Most of the biggest black holes that we know about are in an active state, where matter pulled in close to the black hole heats up and releases energy in the form of light, X-rays, and other radiation,” Dr Nightingale added. “However, gravitational lensing makes it possible to study inactive black holes, something not currently possible in distant galaxies. This approach could let us detect many more black holes beyond our local universe and reveal how these exotic objects evolved further back in cosmic time.”
The research was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.