Astronomers find black hole 8,000 times larger than the sun

Astronomers may have just found the most compelling example yet for a rare kind of black hole that has long been theorized, but which has proven to be even more elusive than more common varieties.

The black hole candidate in question is located about 18,000 light years from Earth and is what’s known as an intermediate-mass black hole, owing to its size. Most black holes form from the collapse of stars about 10 times to a hundred times the mass of our sun, while supermassive black holes can be anywhere from a hundred thousand solar masses to several billion solar masses. The former can be found anywhere in the galaxy, while the latter are found at the center of galaxies.

How, and even if, normal black holes grow into supermassive black holes isn’t known, as they would have to pass through an intermediate phase where they accrete enough mass to become thousands to tens of thousands of times more massive than the sun. It’s these intermediate-mass black holes that astronomers have been looking for but have struggled to find.

In a new paper published in the journal Nature, however, astronomers believe that they’ve pinpointed just such an intermediate-mass black hole in the heart of the Omega Centauri globular cluster, weighing in at a very healthy 8,200 solar masses or more.

The Omega Centauri cluster is a massive collection of several million stars crammed into a rough sphere about 150 light-years across. It’s been used by the Hubble space for two decades as a calibration reference, meaning there are more than 500 high-resolution images of all of these stars, as well as their movement over time.

The international team behind the new study used this timelapse series to get a sense of these stars’ speed and direction, and they identified a number of anomalous stars in the cluster’s center.

“We discovered seven stars that should not be there,” Maximilian Häberle, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany and the lead investigator in the study, said in a NASA statement. “They are moving so fast that they would escape the cluster and never come back.” 

Since you cannot see light coming out of a black hole the way you can with a star, astronomers use indirect measurements of the way a black hole interacts with its surroundings to identify them, and the movement of these stars points to a very massive black hole in the heart of the Omega Centauri cluster.

“The most likely explanation is that a very massive object is gravitationally pulling on these stars and keeping them close to the center. The only object that can be so massive is a black hole, with a mass at least 8,200 times that of our Sun.”

Further observation needed but the findings are compelling

Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, Maximilian Häberle (MPIA)

While there is still work to be done to confirm the findings, this kind of indirect observation has been used in the past to identify black holes before we were able to image them, thanks to the the Event Horizon Telescope.

Now that the researchers know where to look, they are looking forward to getting some time on the James Webb Space Telescope to see if it can identify an accretion disk of heated gas that would be even more convincing evidence that this is indeed a single black hole and not several smaller black holes bunched together.


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John Loeffler John is a writer and programmer living in New York City. He writes about computers, gadgetry, gaming, VR/AR, and related consumer technologies. You can find him on Twitter @thisdotjohn

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