The discovery of a supermassive black hole in a relatively empty part of the Universe could be just the tip of an iceberg, according to the astronomers behind the find.
The black hole, which has a mass of 17 billion Suns, was found in a medium-sized galaxy called NGC 1600, around 200 million light-years from Earth.
Researchers led by Chung-Pei Ma at the University of California, Berkeley, made their discovery by combining images from the Hubble Space Telescope with spectra from the Gemini Telescope in Hawaii and the McDonald Observatory in Texas.
Intriguingly, this region of the sky is a relative desert when compared to the places where supermassive black holes are usually found. Until now, the biggest black holes were found at the centres of very large galaxies in regions loaded with other massive galaxies. The current record holder is a 21-billion-solar-mass behemoth, discovered in the huge Coma Cluster in 2011.
“Rich groups of galaxies like the Coma Cluster are very, very rare, but there are quite a few galaxies the size of NGC 1600 that reside in average-size galaxy groups,” says Ma. “Maybe there are a lot more monster black holes out there.”
The black hole found in NGC 1600 is the first major success of the MASSIVE Survey, which is exploring the largest galaxies and black holes in the Earth’s neighbourhood.
Now, the team will be digging even deeper to find more of these cosmic beasts. Who knows how many are lurking out there…