Black Hole Found: How Big Is It? 17 Billion Suns Big [VIDEO]

By Mo Mozuch on November 29, 2012 12:29 PM EST

Black hole formation in galaxy NGC 4261
The Hubble Telescope captured this image of a formation of a much, much smaller black hole. (Photo: NASA)

Astronomers have found the biggest black hole in the known universe, a staggering celestial formation with a mass equivalent to 17 billion suns. That's billion. With a "B." Or 5.6 quadrillion Earths. That's quadrillion. With a "Q." And it's a number that actually exists so mathematicians can describe things that are really, really big.

The black hole found by astronomers is 220 million light years from Earth in the Perseus constellation. It exists in the un-catchy named NGC 1277 galaxy. The galaxy itself is one-tenth the size of the Milky Way, but the biggest black hole ever found makes up 14 percent of the galaxy's mass. The average black hole usually makes up 0.1 percent of a galaxy's mass.

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"This is a really oddball galaxy," said study team member Karl Gebhardt of the University of Texas at Austin in a statement. "It's almost all black hole. This could be the first object in a new class of galaxy-black hole systems."

Remco van den Bosch, the lead author of the study that found the black hole, told Space.com that it might actually be just one in a series of similar formations in the Milky Way.

"You always expect to find one sort [of a phenomenon], but now we have six of them," van den Bosch said. "We didn't expect them, because we do expect the black holes and the galaxies to influence each other."

The five neighboring galaxies around NGC 1277 likely contain black holes of a similar size. So, the biggest black hole found might not be the biggest black hole for long.

Van den Bosch and his team of astronomers analyzed the light from more than 700 galaxies using the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the University of Texas at Austin's Mcdonald Observatory.  They found the six galaxies when they observed celestial bodies traveling at unusually high speeds within the galaxies, as fast as 218 miles per second. The other indication of the biggest black hoes ever found came from the relatively small size of the galaxies, less than 9,784 light years across.

Using these observations as guiding points, the team then examined archival data from the Hubble Telescope to confirm that the black hole they found was the biggest black hole any of them had ever seen. Van den Bosch admits the team was so astonished by the discovery they spent a year double-checking the math before submitting their findings for publication.

The black hole they found has a radius of 300 AU. (1 AU, or Astronomical Unit, is equal to 149, 597, 871 kilometers a.k.a. the distance between the Earth and sun) That's eleven times larger than Neptune's orbit around the sun, an orbit that takes the planet 165 years to complete. Of particular interest to astronomers is the age of the stars trapped inside it, around 8 billion years old. This is twice the age of the sun. They theorize the age of the stars could be an indication of when the biggest black hole was formed and could further our understanding about the early stages of the universe.

"It could just be this thing has been sitting around since the Big Bang and not done much since then," van den Bosch said. "It might be a relic of what star formation and galactic formation looked like at that time."

Here's a video of Remco van den Bosch explaining how the black hole was found in terms that pretty much everyone can understand. Interesting and useful (particularly if you want to bring this up at holiday parties and sound like Smarty McSciencepants.)

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