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Ultramassive black holes are more common than we thought

December 27, 2012 7:19pm
The biggest black holes out there are way, way bigger — and way more common — than we may have thought, researchers have learned.
 
Researchers led by astrophysicist Julie Hlavacek-Larrondo said there are "dozens" of such black holes, which may be more than 10 billion times the mass of our Sun.
 
"Ultramassive black holes — that is, black holes with masses exceeding 10 billion solar masses — are probably not rare; several and even dozens of these colossal black holes may exist," Larrondo, an astrophysicist at Stanford University, told SPACE.com.
 
Larrondo said at least one black hole could be up to 100 billion times the mass of our Sun, "which really is ultra-big."
 
Citing data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Chandra X-ray Observatory, researchers found at least 10 black holes between 10 to 40 billion times the mass of the Sun.
 
They also used radio data from the Very Large Array in New Mexico and the Australia Telescope Compact Array, as well as infrared data from the 2-Micron All-Sky Survey.
 
Scientists estimate the masses of the black holes by analyzing the amount of X-rays and radio waves they generate when they eat surrounding gas, dust and stars.
 
However, these black holes are about 10 times larger than one would expect from the size of their host galaxies.
 
Study author Andrew Fabian of England's Cambridge University said these results may mean "we don't really understand how the very biggest black holes coexist with their host galaxies."
 
"It looks like the behavior of these huge black holes has to differ from that of their less massive cousins in an important way," he said.
 
Extreme environments
 
Researchers theorized the potentially ultramassive black holes, which lie in galaxies at the centers of massive galaxy clusters containing huge amounts of hot gas, may generate the energy outbursts that keep this hot gas from cooling and forming huge numbers of stars.
 
Since the largest black holes can swallow the most gas and power the largest outbursts, astronomers predicted ultramassive black holes probably existed in these galaxy clusters to explain the number of stars contained within them.
 
The extreme environments of these ultramassive black holes and their galaxies may explain why the standard relationship between galaxies and black holes does not apply here, Space.com said.
 
"Our next step is to measure the mass of these monster black holes in a similar way to M87, and confirm their existence. I wouldn't be surprised if we end up finding the biggest black holes in the universe," said Larrondo.
 
"If our results are confirmed, they will have important ramifications for understanding the formation and evolution of black holes across cosmic time," she added.
 
Larrondo also said that while current models of black hole evolution "can explain ultramassive black holes," one has to "push the models to do so."
 
She theorized the supermassive black holes exist very early on after the Big Bang, and appeared to exist when the universe was still very young, only five percent of its actual age.
 
Telescope
 
Larrondo said the good news is that the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will be able to provide some answers.
 
That telescope, considered a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is due to launch in 2018. Larrondo said it "will have the power to observe the formation of the first supermassive black holes." — TJD, GMA News
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