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Starts With A Bang

Universe’s Largest Black Hole May Have An Explanation At Last

An ultra-distant quasar showing plenty of evidence for a supermassive black hole at its center. How that black hole got so massive so quickly is a topic of contentious scientific debate, but may have an answer that fits within our standard theories. Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ of Michigan/R.C.Reis et al; Optical: NASA/STScI.

Black holes shouldn’t be this big, much less this big so many billions of years ago. Yet here we are.


“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.” –Julie Hlavacek-Larrondo

The brightest, most luminous objects in the entire Universe are neither stars nor galaxies, but quasars, like S5 0014+81.

An illustration of an active black hole, one that accretes matter and accelerates a portion of it outwards in two perpendicular jets, is an outstanding descriptor of how quasars work. Image credit: Mark A. Garlick.

The sixth brightest quasar known so far, its mass was determined in a 2009 study: 40 billion Suns.

The mass of a black hole is the sole determining factor of the radius of the event horizon, for a non-rotating, isolated black hole. The most massive one of all is presently S5 0014+81, at 40,000,000,000 solar masses. Illustration credit: SXS team; Bohn et al 2015.

Its physical size would have a radius that’s 800 times the Earth-Sun distance, or over 100 billion kilometers.

The Triangulum galaxy might not be as massive or impressive as ourselves or Andromeda, but it’s the farthest object from Earth visible with the naked eye, and the third largest galaxy in our local group. Image credit: Robert Gendler, Subaru Telescope (NAOJ).

This makes it the most massive black hole known in the entire Universe, as massive as the Triangulum galaxy, our local group’s third largest member.

Distant, massive quasars show ultramassive black holes in their cores, and their electromagnetic counterparts are easy to detect. It’s only the accretion disks and jets that are visible, not the black hole itself. Image credit: J. Wise/Georgia Institute of Technology and J. Regan/Dublin City University.

It shines so brightly because large amounts of matter are falling into the center via an accretion disk, getting accelerated and producing light.

When an active galaxy has one of its jets pointed directly at Earth, we observe an ultra-luminous phenomenon known as a blazar. These are the brightest objects seen in the entire Universe. Image credit: NASA / JPL.

This object is known as a blazar, the brightest class of all active galaxies with supermassive black holes.

If this quasar were 18 million times as far away as our Sun (280 light years from Earth), it would shine as bright in the sky as our life-giving star does. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Alan 2988.

If it were located just 280 light years away, it would shine as brightly as our Sun does in the sky.

The most distant X-ray jet in the Universe, from quasar GB 1428, is approximately the same distance and age, as viewed from Earth, as quasar S5 0014+81. Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/NRC/C.Cheung et al; Optical: NASA/STScI; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA.

Instead, S5 0014+81 is over 22 billion light years away; we see it as it was just 1.6 billion years after the Big Bang.

Simulations of various gas-rich processes, such as galaxy mergers, indicate that the formation of direct collapse black holes should be possible. A combination of direct collapse, supernovae, and merging stars and stellar remnants could produce a young black hole this massive. Image credit: L. Mayer et al. (2014), via https://arxiv.org/abs/1411.5683.

A combination of supernovae, direct collapse black holes, and rapidly merging components could lead to a black hole so young and massive.

The biggest ‘big idea’ that JWST has is to reveal to us the very first luminous objects in the Universe, including stars, supernovae, star clusters, galaxies, and luminous black holes. To date, however, no one has a plan to detect distant, ultramassive, but inactive black holes. Image credit: Karen Teramura, UHIfA / NASA.

Its activity gives it away; more massive, inactive black holes may exist.


Mostly Mute Monday tells the astronomical story of an object or phenomenon in pictures, visuals and no more than 200 words.

Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.

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