back to article Hubble spies supermassive black hole in surprising spot

Scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have spotted a huge black hole with 17 billion times the mass of our sun residing in an otherwise nearly empty backwater of the universe. Supermassive black holes are typically found at the center of busy crowded galaxies, but this example was found in the sparsely populated …

  1. Lucasjkr

    I feel like eventually we're going to find out that black holes account for most of the dark matter out there, and just other mass in interstellar space that we have no means to detect, rather than some new type of particle. But then, I'm not an astrophysicist...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Or dark matter is other universes

      @"I feel like eventually we're going to find out that black holes account for most of the dark matter out there"

      Or that our universe is not special. One of many many many. And the event that created it is not a special one off, and has happened over and over and over and over again. Which would make the background radiation, not relic radiation, but rather the distant blurr of lots of other universes.

      It would seem obvious that something that happens once can happen twice, or n times. So that bit is common sense. No theory of the universe has the necessary "only happens once" part. So nobody is seriously explaining why we would be the only universe.

      The background radiation follows from that.

      The accelerating-expanding universe is explained (galaxies are expanding out at an accelerating rate, faster than the speed of light and out-run their own light to become invisible), its accelerating out to merge with distant universes.

      But then why don't black holes suck up all the matter as would be inevitable? Well they do*, perhaps they go boom and that is what we considered to be the big bang.

      * Matter can't escape black holes because it can't travel faster than light, yet galaxies are accelerating faster than light out of our universe, and galaxies are matter. Ergo we've made a mistake somewhere, and blackholes are not end games that trap matter forever.

      1. Timbo

        Re: Or dark matter is other universes

        "The accelerating-expanding universe is explained (galaxies are expanding out at an accelerating rate, faster than the speed of light and out-run their own light to become invisible)..."

        I've heard this idea before, but what I don't understand is this:

        a) I thought that "nothing can travel faster than light" is a basic rule of science ? Even if it's only the "edge" of the galaxy, that would still have mass ? Or are we talking about the "galaxy" as having a theoretical "volume" and it's this volume that is expanding (while the stars within the galaxy are expanding outwards, but not at quite the same rate ?)

        And b) if an entire galaxy is accelerating out, where is it getting it's energy from to do this ?

        Lastly, c) if the galaxies that are expanding outwards so quickly, since the Big Bang, and they are moving away from us, there must be huge numbers of them that we cannot see or detect, as light and other tell-tale signs that travel at the speed of light (or less), will never reach us. So how do we know they are there ?

        1. TeeCee Gold badge

          Re: Or dark matter is other universes

          The key here (which is where the wingnut above gets it wrong) is "observable universe". When you look into distant space, you are also looking into the distant past, as light takes its time to get from there to here.

          Eventually you are looking so far that you've reached the time of the Big Bang and anything further away didn't exist at the time by definition.

          No galaxy accelerates so fast it becomes invisible, it's invisible 'cos from our point of reference it isn't there yet!

        2. mad physicist Fiona

          Re: Or dark matter is other universes

          a) I thought that "nothing can travel faster than light" is a basic rule of science ? Even if it's only the "edge" of the galaxy, that would still have mass ? Or are we talking about the "galaxy" as having a theoretical "volume" and it's this volume that is expanding (while the stars within the galaxy are expanding outwards, but not at quite the same rate ?)

          This is one of those things it can be difficult to get your head around with a coffee-table-style understanding of cosmology. I don't mean that in any kind of derogatory way, it is just that general audience science documentaries tend to do a crap job of emphasizing a subtle point:

          The expansion of space means exactly that - it is not that distant objects are moving away from each other (an expansion in space), rather it is the space itself between the two objects that is getting bigger. That isn't movement in a conventional sense and not subject to the constraints relativity imposes on moving objects. If the distance between two objects is great enough the expansion of space between them can indeed be greater than the speed of light. This isn't at odds with relativity simply because the theory doesn't apply.

          1. Mark 85 Silver badge

            Re: Or dark matter is other universes

            The expansion of space means exactly that - it is not that distant objects are moving away from each other (an expansion in space), rather it is the space itself between the two objects that is getting bigger. That isn't movement in a conventional sense and not subject to the constraints relativity imposes on moving objects. If the distance between two objects is great enough the expansion of space between them can indeed be greater than the speed of light. This isn't at odds with relativity simply because the theory doesn't apply

            I dimly recall hearing that postulated some time ago and it makes sense. If the speed of two galaxes (say ours and another one) are moving away from each other when the speeds are added to together and are greater than the speed of light, we'll never see them.

      2. This post has been deleted by its author

      3. Keith 21
        FAIL

        Re: Or dark matter is other universes

        "Matter can't escape black holes because it can't travel faster than light"

        Nothing says something can not travel faster than the speed of light.

        Einstein did postulate that it is not possible to accelerate through light speed, but that's all - he said nothing about not being able to travel faster than the speed of light.

        "galaxies are accelerating faster than light"

        Given that light doesn't accelerate anyway, even you or I can accelerate faster than light merely by going from standing to walking.

        Perhaps you meant to say they are accelerating to speeds faster than that of light? Even then you'd be wrong. It's all relative (as someone once said).

        "out of our universe"

        Again, no. They are, by definition, part of our (expanding) universe, and remain so even if we can not see them.

        "Ergo we've made a mistake somewhere"

        Well, quite.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Or dark matter is other universes

          @"Einstein did postulate"

          Lots of debating tricks here. What you avoided addressing is a rather basic thing: Why ONE universe? And how is the expansion accelerating (to speeds that outrun its own light).

          @"They are, by definition, part of our (expanding) universe, and remain so even if we can not see them."

          Well no, if there's more than one universe, then they can be more influenced by that universe than ours as time passes. Adding "by definition" is not a proof.

          You see the problem, the theory as it stands today is a mash up, One Universe (no proof or reason why one), created from magic-bang, creates space-time as it goes.

          But if you have no reason for ONE universe, then space time already existed, and there was something before the big bang.

          And if there's a gazillion universes outside of our visible bubble of light, then they would have a pull on us and so that pull needs to be accounted for. And what would such a pull look like, if not an accelerating expansion of our universe!

          Running away from basic "why one universe" question with appeals to authority (e.g. Einstein), Straw Men (relativity) fixes nothing here.

          And if we're all just matter mashed around among lots of universes as they are created and cluster to collapse. Then the matter cannot end in a black hole. So the mechanism for the end of a black hole needs to then be understood.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Or dark matter is other universes

            Perhaps I can explain this in terms of black holes better.:

            Q. Why is all matter not inside one giant black hole? If they suck up galaxies and the matter can never escape, then given enough time, they suck up everything.

            The classic answer: "because there wasn't enough time since the universe was created".

            But that is creationism in a more sciency way. There is no singularity of anything in any branch of science, anything you can make once, you can make twice, or N times. No magic force kicks in to prevent it, no one-time rule works. There's no hypothesis as to how such a one time only event could ever be limited to one time.

            Hence whatever made one universe made many and is making many.

            So if there's more than one universe, and any event of whatever type can happen over and over again and again. It follows that space time was not created when our particular universe was created, and thus it existed before our universe.

            So there was time for blackholes to swallow everything.

            So how do black-holes eject their matter, as must happen because we're not all in one massive black hole.

            If your physics happens to work out a Universe Sized bang of a blackhole, with all the matter being pulled out by a the universes that were around it. Then I'm sure they'll give you the nobel prize.

            1. Hollerithevo Silver badge

              Re: Or dark matter is other universes

              There is a thought out there that we are indeed in a universethat is one ginormous black hole, and the 'universe' we see and live in and are is simply a holographic surface phenomenon of that black hole.

    2. TitterYeNot

      "I feel like eventually we're going to find out that black holes account for most of the dark matter out there, and just other mass in interstellar space that we have no means to detect"

      Except that black holes are almost certainly not what physicists refer to as dark matter, they are (as far as we know) composed of 'normal' matter compressed by gravitational forces until collapsed into a singularity. As it is estimated that matter that we can't see makes up over 80% of the mass of the universe, if that mass was accounted for by black holes they would be far more common than stars (which they aren't, otherwise we'd see their effect on the movements of planets, stars and galaxies.)

      Dark matter is so called because we can detect its gravitational effects, but it doesn't interact with normal matter other than through gravitational attraction, and it appears to be very diffuse (i.e. spread thoughout galaxies in lumpy clouds). You can't pick it up and weigh it, or have a look at it by illuminating it with a torch (flashlight for leftpondians), as it doesn't interact with either your hand or the light from your torch.

      1. Deltics

        "Dark matter is so called because we can detect its gravitational effects ... "

        This raises an interesting question. How do we know that Dark Matter is needed to explain the gravitational effects that we observe, as opposed to simply not having accurately estimated the mass of the matter we are observing ?

        I was listening recently to a discussion of dark matter by experts in the field and they were asked to explain to the audience how they *know* that dark matter exists, if we can't observe it. They gave an example (from real observations) of a galaxy some 400 million light years away and the fact that the stars orbiting around the outer "rim" of that galaxy are orbiting far too fast - they should be flung out of orbit, unless there is enough gravity to hold them in their orbits.

        But the galaxy isn't heavy enough to have that gravity, so it *must* be dark matter.

        How do they know the galaxy isn't heavy enough ? Why, from observing it's gravitational effects of course. But apparently *not* the effect of holding on to stars that are whizzing around faster than expected ? *That* effect must be from this dark matter stuff. Huh ?

        How can we be so certain that we aren't simply under-estimating the mass of the matter we can see ?

        It's not as if you can nip over over there and put all the matter within that galaxy on some scales to verify the mass calculation.

        1. Ed_UK
          Boffin

          "How do we know that Dark Matter is needed to explain the gravitational effects that we observe, as opposed to simply not having accurately estimated the mass of the matter we are observing ?"

          <...>

          "How can we be so certain that we aren't simply under-estimating the mass of the matter we can see ?"

          Good questions. I think you just about touched on the answer; it's not just the rotational speed, but the _distribution_ of orbital speed across the galaxy's disc. The speed ought to roll off as you get away from the centre of (visible) mass but it doesn't. Diagram here:

          http://pages.uoregon.edu/jimbrau/BrauImNew/Chap23/6th/23_21Figure-F.jpg

  2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Danger. Unskilled metaphor mixer at work.

    'Is this the tip of an iceberg?' Maybe there are more monster black holes out there that don't live in a skyscraper in Manhattan, but in a tall building somewhere in the Midwestern plains."

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Danger. Unskilled metaphor mixer at work.

      Hey, at least there was no mention of rubber sheets.

    2. Someone Else Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Danger. Unskilled metaphor mixer at work.

      I don't get the good Doctor's (Dr. Ma, not necessarily Dr. Syntax) amazement with "tall building[s] somewhere in the Midwestern plains." Has he never seen a grain elevator out in the middle of Bufu, North Dakota, for instance? Some of those suckers are (in the words of an infamous reality TV star-cum-politician) "Yuuuuge".

      1. DougS Silver badge

        Not just grain elevators

        Until the Burj Khalifa was completed a few years ago, the tallest man made structure in the world was a TV antenna in North Dakota.

    3. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

      Re: Danger. Unskilled metaphor mixer at work.

      If you actually start seeing icebergs in the Midwestern plains, be afraid. Very afraid.

  3. Mark 85 Silver badge

    The metaphors don't bother me. These guys aren't English majors. But the discoveries of late are just impressive.

  4. Slx

    Maybe the lack of anything in the vicinity is something to do with the large blackhole hanging around burping ... "what solar systems?" nom nom nom...

  5. harmjschoonhoven
    Unhappy

    Black hole

    Nothing to be seen here http://arxiv.org/find.

  6. Deltics
    Holmes

    Ummm... Dark matter ?

    IANAAP (I am not an astro-physicist) so excuse me if this is an eye-wateringly dumb question.... but...

    aiui the existence of Dark Matter is a theory that is intended to explain the otherwise "missing" mass from the universe. But now we hear that we have found a hitherto unknown object in the universe that accounts for a HUGE amount of mass which no current models even predicted might exist and which appears might be far more common than we had thought (given that the models gave no indication that it would exist at all).

    So ... how is this not accounting for the "missing" mass that Dark Matter is supposed to account for ?

    Surely a three pipe problem. At least.

    1. Palpy

      Re: Ummm... Dark matter? Huge black holes?

      I am not an astrophysicist either. Nor even an astrologer.

      But if I understand correctly, observations indicate that dark matter is superimposed on galaxies in a way that requires it to be pretty evenly distributed amongst and beyond the stars and gas blobs and whatnot which make up the visible galaxy. Black holes, being very compact and centralized masses, don't seem likely candidates for something which appears to be widespread and relatively tenuous.

      However, Massive Astrophysical Compact Halo Objects -- dark MACHOs like black holes and failed stars -- have been proposed as an explanation for dark matter, so despite your disclaimer of not being an expert, you were very close on the mark which some researchers aimed at!

      The bad news is that careful searches have failed to turn up the MACHO objects in the area where gravitational effects say there is a halo of dark matter.

      See this essay by Ann Martin of Cornell for a better answer.

      1. Lucasjkr

        Re: Ummm... Dark matter? Huge black holes?

        If dark matter is distributed more or less evenly throughout galaxies and accounts for such an vast amount of the mass out there, why aren't we detecting it right here?

        Meanwhile, we tried to measure masses of galaxies and thought there's not enough gravity to keep them intact, but only recently realized that nearly all galaxies have super massive black holes at their centers. It's almost impossible to detect other black holes until they interact with stuff, so we have no idea of the numbers of black holes in our galaxy. And on a smaller scale, we're now seeing planets nearly everywhere we look. Isn't all of that a decent chunk of the universes missing mass?

        Further, and I asked Reddit once (haha) but got no answer, could it be that interstellar space could be a lot more cluttered than we think? Rather than being surrounded by the Oort Cloud, how are we certain that that's not what space is like, vast regions relatively full of chunks frozen hydrogen, helium and oxygen? So rather than an Oort Cloud, we actually exist in the Oort Bubble, which the sun has cleared out over the billions of preceding years?

        Couldn't all that, applied to the rest of our galaxy and all the others, account for huge amounts of the missing mass were looking for?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Ummm... Dark matter? Huge black holes?

          > "If dark matter is distributed more or less evenly throughout galaxies and accounts for such an vast amount of the mass out there, why aren't we detecting it right here?"

          Because it's average density is very low, and well, because.

          First it was seen that parts of disk galaxies are rotating too slowly for the apparent total mass. This can only be explained by positing massive halos around the galaxies, changing the galactic gravity gradient.

          Then comes the problem of finding what that mass is. We don't know because we've never detected it, but it has to be there or the calculated gravitational constant is wrong. That would be more difficult to explain, so scientists don't want to go there.

          It can't really be small chunks of normal matter, because that arrangement isn't stable over billions of years. It would form stars and such.

          Supermassive black holes are nice, but they are not massive enough and they are in the wrong places to explain the rotation problem.

          So we're left with Dark Something. I know it's not satisfying, but it's the best we can do at the moment.

    2. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Ummm... Dark matter ?

      "But now we hear that we have found a hitherto unknown object in the universe that accounts for a HUGE amount of mass which no current models even predicted might exist and which appears might be far more common than we had thought "

      Except that even if they're common, it's _not enough_ mass and more importantly it's not distributed diffusely enough to explain the effects seen (the dark matter gravitational effects around galaxies match that of a cloud of matter, not of a few point sources)

      There will be an explanation to be found somewhere, but none of the existing ones (including the Standard Model) all wrap up the math nicely _and_ fit with observations - as such they're unlikely to be the entire answer.

  7. harmjschoonhoven
    Happy

    Some light on the black hole

    A 17-billion-solar-mass black hole in a group galaxy with a diffuse core http://arxiv.org/pdf/1604.01400 (PDF), published online 06 April 2016 in Nature http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature17197.html

    1. arctic_haze Silver badge

      Re: Some light on the black hole

      From the abstract of the paper:

      Here we report observations of the stellar velocity distribution in the galaxy NGC 1600—a relatively isolated elliptical galaxy near the centre of a galaxy group at a distance of 64 megaparsecs from Earth. We use orbit superposition models to determine that the black hole at the centre of NGC 1600 has a mass of 17 billion solar masses. The spatial distribution of stars near the centre of NGC 1600 is rather diffuse. We find that the region of depleted stellar density in the cores of massive elliptical galaxies extends over the same radius as the gravitational sphere of influence of the central black holes, and interpret this as the dynamical imprint of the black holes.

      So it seems this is not a corn field but rather a post-industrial decaying city with an old skyscraper in the center. With the difference that real skyscrapers do not eat the downtowns...

  8. Mpeler
    Pint

    Backwaters?

    “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” (Douglas Adams)

    OK, too late to worry if you left the gas on, then.....

    (And some joyless tubes, full of gristle, accompanied by yellow water with gas in it - I'll just stick with the beer).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Backwaters?

      Better than Iain Banks "The Culture" which quarantines us as unfit for civilized company. And yes, I'd love a beer.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Wafer thin galaxy

    So it's a sort of cosmic Mr. Creosote.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Wafer thin galaxy

      "So it's a sort of cosmic Mr. Creosote."

      Sort of, except when massive black holes eat to fast they spew out of both ends at the same time. Sorry, even I wish I had not conjured up that visual.

  10. Someone Else Silver badge
    Coat

    Scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have spotted a huge black hole with 17 billion times the mass of our sun residing in an otherwise nearly empty backwater of the universe.

    Of course that galactic backwater is near empty, the damn black hole went and ate anything and everything that used to be there.

    Duh!

    1. Bloodbeastterror

      "black hole went and ate anything and everything"

      That's exactly what I thought, but then surely they would have stated this as part of the publication, given the essence of the story about the strange empty location? If the story had been themed "Black hole ate all the pies" then the empty space around it wouldn't be so much of a surprise...

      These space stories freak me out. I can't imagine the mass of our sun (it loses 4 million tons of mass *per second*) and there are things 17 thousand million times as big? And we can see things that are 200 million light years away? And more? As the TV series says: "How do they do that?"

      1. Rich 11 Silver badge

        Then just to freak you out a little more, that black hole is about 10.6 light years in diameter.

        That's quite a big hole.

        1. twellys
          Joke

          Just creating another Earth inside...

        2. Pau1mi11er

          Big enough to Live in Comfortably?

          Not that I've looked at the source document or done any maths or anything, but I wonder what the gravitational field strength would be just inside (or even a few light years inside) the event horizon. At that sort of size I bet it is very survivable and there might be other planets etc happily wandering around looking out and not seeing the edge of their universe.

          Any thoughts?

          1. This post has been deleted by its author

          2. Pau1mi11er

            Re: Big enough to Live in Comfortably?

            Ok, so I did the maths and the answer I get at the event horizon is (providing I've not made any errors which is highly likely)

            g = 1e-18 m/s/s which seems very survivable to me (given that we quite happily live in 9.8 m/s/s).

            Even going halfway to the singularity g only goes up to 1e-16 m/s/s

            What do you think that would be like?

            1. Pau1mi11er

              Re: Big enough to Live in Comfortably?

              OK, so I did some better maths.

              I presumed the diameter of the black hole was 10.6 light years (as stated above). But it's not, it's only 1e-16 light years so that makes things very different (if my numbers are correct).

              However, g then becomes about 900m/s/s I think which could produce a nice orbit and tidal effects won't be too severe - someone else can work it out, my brain has now stopped working.

          3. Mpeler
            Pint

            Re: Big enough to Live in Comfortably?

            Slo-Time™ for Crikkit?

  11. NomNomNom

    Serious question, could it be aliens?

    1. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Only if they had a very big bulldozer.

    2. Vic

      could it be aliens?

      It's always aliens.

      They probably want to return Glenn Miller. That's what they do.

      We don't want him! Go away! You took him, you can keep the smegger!

      Vic.

  12. Tezfair
    Headmaster

    My theory on black holes

    I reckon that black holes are the hoover of the physics universe. Eventually it sucks everything up and converts it back into it basic form, so all the bits / atoms that make the periodic table are pulled apart into the sub particles / neutrinos / quarks (or what ever it's called) and you end up with a soup of matter with no form. Eventually the black hole(s) collapse as there is no further matter to convert and you end up with a universe of 'nothing' which eventually goes boom and you get the big bang and it all starts again.

    1. Hollerithevo Silver badge

      Re: My theory on black holes

      Mr Dyson, is that you?

    2. alferdpacker

      Re: My theory on black holes

      I'm not going to contradict your theory but I'm not sure you know how Hoovers work. They don't break your carpet fluff into elementary particles. Sometimes they do go boom.

  13. Fungus Bob Silver badge
    Holmes

    "Scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have spotted a huge black hole with 17 billion times the mass of our sun residing in an otherwise nearly empty backwater of the universe."

    Of course it's nearly empty, the black hole sucked everything up!

  14. everycloudhasasilverbullet
    Facepalm

    So much misinformation

    1. Black holes do radiate matter, albeit via hawking radiation. Hawking radiation orignitates from the surface of blackholes, Energy isn't free, so it is taken from the blackhole itself. E=MC^2 therefore the leaking energy is equivalent to leaking mass.

    2. Galaxies are not accelerating away from us. Space itself is expanding and carrying away the galaxies with that expansion. The rate at which space expands is NOT limited by the speed of light. For an example of space expanding faster than light, look at the "Inflationary Event".

    3.Dark Matter in the form of WIMPS is the most likely candidate to explain the missing mass of galaxies. This is due to measured phenomena regarding the effects darkmatter (whatever it consists of) has on galaxies and interactions within galactic clusters and their galactic components. These measurements include observations of gravitational lensing and intergalactic collisions and movement, amongst others. The Bullet Cluster being a good example. Massive objects are very unlikely to account for this missing mass, even taking into account this recent discovery regarding massive blackholes in unlikely places. If the amount of darkmatter were to be accounted by blackholes and/or other massive objects then they would produce measurable phenomena very different to what we are actually observing.

  15. Marketing Hack Silver badge
    Alien

    "found in the sparsely populated elliptical galaxy"

    I guess that galaxy used to be less sparsely populated!!

    Alas for the now-lost sentient kittens of Xyeriala 4!!

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