Scientists Discover Supermassive Black Holes Closer Than You Think

Depiction of Black Hole
Artist's Rendering of Black Hole
Artist's Rendering of Black Hole

Scientists have discovered a black hole much closer to Earth than they thought possible. The astronomers at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany discovered this new giant black hole during a three-month mission in 2013. The new discovery is also just one in a new series of supermassive black holes discovered across the Milky Way galaxy. The astronomers were not expecting an alien black hole to be discovered, but to have one discovered in this particular galaxy with no explanation. “The galaxy is quite old,” said lead author Andreas Pfluger from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. “It’s not just any old galaxy…it’s quite a big one.”

Pfluger had discovered some other supermassive black holes in nearby galaxies that were located far from their Milky Way brethren. These were not as old, but they were still very far away. It took Pfluger months just to find a galaxy located near the black hole’s edge, the center of which had to be in a different galaxy. “I couldn’t have known about this galaxy,” explained Pfluger. “I don’t even know of many other black holes in these distant galaxies.”

This galaxy, named NGC 976, is a bit further off in space than the Milky Way. It is located roughly 1.4 billion light years away in the constellation of Cygnus. The researchers named it for its large white cloud, which is thought to be a type of gas cloud surrounding it. In this galaxy, this cloud is the same as what is found across the whole Milky Way galaxy.

In this particular galaxy, the astronomers found two massive objects that are thought to be black holes. They are thought to be the remnant mass of a star and a gas cloud known as an accretion disc.

“Black holes have the mass to absorb most of our solar system,” said lead author and Max Planck scientist Andreas Pfluger. “We are seeing these objects from other galaxies, so we need to take that into account and understand what’s in them.”

The scientists were surprised when they discovered the black hole with the most powerful light source in our galaxy. They are not sure how they found out about it but said it may be possible they detected an interstellar object in the Milky Way that had already passed through another galaxy.

These objects in the galaxy are believed to be so massive that it will take several billion years for the two black holes in this galaxy to merge into one, possibly in about 4 million years. “These are extremely massive black holes,” said Pfluger. “It could take billions of years to merge them in the Milky Way.”

The astronomers hope their findings will help them understand what happens when these objects become so massive that they become unstable. They also hope they’ll help us to understand what happens when these stars die. “We have a very important question: What is the fate of a star that’s so huge that it is no longer an active body anymore and when does it die?” said Pfluger.

The Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics is a member of the Max Planck Society.

The study of supermassive black holes is important for astronomers and for scientists working all over the globe. In this case, it may have been used to explore a whole new field in black holes and for black hole research. The research will be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.