Black Holes Larger than Entire Galaxies? New Techniques Allow Astronomers to Measure Supermassive Objects

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The largest known supermassive black hole described below, contains 18 billion solar masses of material. Although black holes are dark, their masses can be measured quite precisely from their gravitational influence on stars and other matter. Astronomers have done just that over the past few decades by looking at the way gas around a nucleus moves under the influence of the massive black hole. The results on dozens of galaxies so far have shown that black hole sizes can be reliably estimated with this technique.


It is not always easy, however, to separate the light around the nuclear region from the rest of a galaxy's starlight in order to measure this moving gas. SAO astronomers Martin Elvis and Margarita Karovska, together with five colleagues, have devised a new technique that takes advantage of the fact that the infrared luminosity of the gas also depends on its motion, and so also provides a measure of the black hole mass. They find from a sample of fourteen previously measured galaxies that the infrared observations give very good agreement with other techniques. Since infrared observations can in many situations be easier to obtain, the new technique will allow black hole measurements to be extended to many other galaxies.

The biggest known black hole in the universe weighs in with a mass of 18 billion Suns, and is about the size of an entire galaxy. This monster black hole has a puny twin hovering nearby. By observing the orbit of the smaller black hole, astronomers were able to test Einstein's theory of general relativity with stronger gravitational fields than ever before.

The biggest black hole beats out its nearest competitor by six times. Fortunately, it’s 3.5 billion light years away, forming the heart of a quasar called OJ287. Quasars are extremely bright objects in which matter spiraling into a giant black hole emits large amounts of radiation.

The smaller black hole, which weighs about 100 million Suns, orbits the larger one on an oval-shaped path every 12 years. It comes close enough to punch through the disc of matter surrounding the larger black hole twice each orbit, causing a pair of outbursts that make OJ287 suddenly brighten.

General relativity predicts that the smaller hole's orbit itself should rotate over time, so that the point at which it comes nearest its neighbor moves around in space. This effect  is seen in Mercury's orbit around the Sun, on a much smaller scale.

In the case of OJ287, the tremendous gravitational field of the larger black hole causes the smaller black hole's orbit to precess at an impressive 39° each orbit. The precession changes where and when the smaller hole crashes through the disc surrounding its larger sibling.

About a dozen of the resulting bright outbursts have been observed to date, and astronomers led by Mauri Valtonen of Tuorla Observatory in Finland have analysed them to measure the precession rate of the smaller hole's orbit. That, along with the period of the orbit, suggests the larger black hole weighs a record 18 billion Suns.

So just how big can these bad boys get? Craig Wheeler of the University of Texas in Austin, US, says it depends only on how long a black hole has been around and how fast it has swallowed matter in order to grow. "There is no theoretical upper limit," he says.

The most recent outburst occurred on 13 September 2007, as predicted by general relativity. "If there was no orbital decay, the outburst would have been 20 days later than when it actually happened," Valtonen told New Scientist, adding that the black holes are on track to merge within 10,000 years.

Wheeler says the observations of the outbursts fit closely with the expectations from general relativity. "The fact that you can fit Einstein's theory [so well] … is telling you that that's working," he says.

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The Daily Galaxy via newscientist.com, space.com, and cfa.harvard.edu

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