text-only page produced automatically by LIFT Text Transcoder Skip all navigation and go to page contentSkip top navigation and go to directorate navigationSkip top navigation and go to page navigation
National Science Foundation
News
design element
News
News From the Field
For the News Media
Special Reports
Research Overviews
NSF-Wide Investments
Speeches & Lectures
NSF Current Newsletter
Multimedia Gallery
News Archive
News by Research Area
Arctic & Antarctic
Astronomy & Space
Biology
Chemistry & Materials
Computing
Earth & Environment
Education
Engineering
Mathematics
Nanoscience
People & Society
Physics
 

Email this pagePrint this page


Press Release 11-254
Sleeping Giants Discovered

Largest black holes ever measured found in "nearby" galaxies

Illustration showing the stellar environment around a black hole of about 10 billion solar masses.

Artist's conception of the stellar environment around a black hole of about 10 billion solar masses.
Credit and Larger Version

December 5, 2011

Astronomers recently discovered the most massive black holes to date. Found in two separate nearby galaxies roughly 300 million light years away from Earth, each black hole has a mass equivalent to 10 billion suns.

"We knew that really large quasars, which are powered by matter falling into black holes, existed in the early universe," said Chung-Pei Ma, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley and co-author of an article that will be published in Nature on December 8.

"What we hadn't yet found was where the remnants of those quasars--equally large black holes--were in the current universe," she said. "The boisterous quasars may have passed through a turbulent youth to become the quiescent giant elliptical galaxies we see today, harboring hidden black holes at their centers."

Black holes are made of matter so dense that even light can't escape their intense gravitational fields. Exploding stars--known as supernovae--can create relatively small black holes only a few times more massive than the sun, but researchers think these monster black holes are formed in different ways, such as multiple smaller black holes merging into one, or voracious growth by swallowing vast amounts of stars and gas while galaxies are forming.

The gigantic black holes discovered by Ma and her colleagues are so enormous they are capable of consuming anything within a region five times the size of Earth's solar system.

Researchers think that most, if not all, galaxies have a black hole at the center. The larger the galaxy, the larger the black hole it contains. Researchers suggest these blacks holes consume tremendous quantities of gas and dust from the central regions of the galaxy, at which point they become "dormant." The surviving gas may become stars that orbit peacefully within the galaxy.

Their quiet nature is part of what makes these sleeping giants so difficult to observe. "Since black holes cannot be seen, we have to detect them by carefully observing their immediate surroundings," said Nicholas McConnell, first author of the paper. "These galaxies contained enormous masses within a small central volume--too much mass to come from stars alone." These and other factors led the group to conclude that most of the mass is contained in massive black holes.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), and using telescopes at the NSF-supported International Gemini Observatory, as well as the Keck and McDonald observatories, McConnell and Ma were able to map the velocities of stars orbiting the centers of massive elliptical galaxies--data the research team did not have the technical capability to obtain just a few years ago. The new results may help astronomers determine how black holes and galaxies form and develop together over the history of the universe.

"Galaxies are the places where stars and planetary systems form, and supermassive black holes in the early universe set the stage for their formation," said Tom Statler, program director for NSF's division of Astronomical Sciences.

"Black holes played a big role in making our universe what it is today."

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Lisa Van Pay, NSF, (703) 292-8796, lvanpay@nsf.gov
Lisa-Joy Zgorski, NSF, (703) 292-8311, lisajoy@nsf.gov
Robert Sanders, University of California, Berkeley, (510) 643-6998, rsanders@berkeley.edu

Program Contacts
Thomas Statler, NSF, (703) 292-4910, tstatler@nsf.gov

Co-Investigators
Chung-Pei Ma, University of California, Berkeley, (510) 301-3780, cpma@berkeley.edu

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

 Get News Updates by Email 

Useful NSF Web Sites:
NSF Home Page: http://www.nsf.gov
NSF News: http://www.nsf.gov/news/
For the News Media: http://www.nsf.gov/news/newsroom.jsp
Science and Engineering Statistics: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/
Awards Searches: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/

 

Audio Only icon
Play Audio
UC-Berkeley astronomers describe massive black hole discovery at NSF audio press conference.
Credit and Larger Version

Image of two giant elliptical galaxies obtained by the Gemini Observatory.
An image of two giant elliptical galaxies obtained by the Gemini Observatory in March of 2008.
Credit and Larger Version

Image showing a collection of galaxies which are part of a much larger cluster of galaxies.
This collection of galaxies is part of a much larger cluster of galaxies (Abell 1367).
Credit and Larger Version



Email this pagePrint this page
Back to Top of page