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From Super to Ultra: Just How Big Can Black Holes Get?

For Release: December 18, 2012

CXC

PKS 0745
Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Stanford/Hlavacek-Larrondo, J. et al; Optical: NASA/STScI; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA
Press Image and Caption

Some of the biggest black holes in the Universe may actually be even bigger than previously thought, according to a study using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Astronomers have long known about the class of the largest black holes, which they call "supermassive" black holes. Typically, these black holes, located at the centers of galaxies, have masses ranging between a few million and a few billion times that of our sun.

This new analysis has looked at the brightest galaxies in a sample of 18 galaxy clusters, to target the largest black holes. The work suggests that at least ten of the galaxies contain an ultramassive black hole, weighing between 10 and 40 billion times the mass of the sun. Astronomers refer to black holes of this size as "ultramassive" black holes and only know of a few confirmed examples.

"Our results show that there may be many more ultramassive black holes in the universe than previously thought," said study leader Julie Hlavacek-Larrondo of Stanford University and formerly of Cambridge University in the UK.

The researchers estimated the masses of the black holes in the sample by using an established relationship between masses of black holes, and the amount of X-rays and radio waves they generate. This relationship, called the fundamental plane of black hole activity, fits the data on black holes with masses ranging from 10 solar masses to a billion solar masses.

The black hole masses derived by Hlavacek-Larrondo and her colleagues were about ten times larger than those derived from standard relationships between black hole mass and the properties of their host galaxy. One of these relationships involves a correlation between the black hole mass and the infrared luminosity of the central region, or bulge, of the galaxy.

"These results may mean we don't really understand how the very biggest black holes coexist with their host galaxies," said co-author Andrew Fabian of Cambridge University. "It looks like the behavior of these huge black holes has to differ from that of their less massive cousins in an important way."

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