Ultramassive black hole discovered by UK astronomers

An ultramassive black hole about 30bn times the mass of the Sun has been discovered by astronomers in the UK.

Scientists at Durham University said the gargantuan black hole was one of the biggest ever found. The team described their findings, published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, as “extremely exciting”.

The paper’s lead author, Dr James Nightingale, of the university’s physics department, said: “This particular black hole, which is roughly 30bn 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.”

Ultramassive black holes are the most massive objects in the universe, at between 10bn and 40bn times the mass of the Sun. Astronomers believe they can be found at the centre of all large galaxies, such as the Milky Way.

Ultramassive black holes are rare and elusive, and their origins are unclear. Some believe they were formed from the extreme merger of massive galaxies billions of years ago when the universe was still young.

The researchers used a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing, in which a nearby galaxy acted as a giant magnifying glass. This revealed the presence of the black hole, a region where gravity’s pull is so powerful that not even light can escape.

The scientists used supercomputer simulations at the university and images captured by the Hubble space telescope to confirm its size.

They said it was the first black hole found using gravitational lensing. “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 said.

“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 researchers said their work opened up the “tantalising possibility” that astronomers could discover more ultramassive black holes than previously thought.

The research was supported by the UK Space Agency, the Royal Society, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, part of UK Research and Innovation, and the European Research Council.

The Guardian