Extreme Universe: Biggest Black Hole! December 26, 2008Posted by jcconwell in Astronomy, Black Holes, Extreme Universe.
Tags: Astronomy, blackholes
In keeping with the end of the year theme of the blog “Extremes in the Universe”. The day after Christmas, an irresistible pull… a point of no return… no we’re not talking about your holiday credit card bill or the after Christmas sales. We are talking black holes.
The heavyweight champion of the year, and at 18 billion solar masses, the largest known black hole in the universe was discovered in January of this year. The biggest black hole beats out its nearest competitor, the black hole in the heart of M87, by a factor of six.
Located in the heart of a quasar called OJ287, it’s at a distance of 3.5 billion light years .
Just like other champions, it had some help. In order to measure the black hole’s mass you need an object orbiting it. A smaller black hole, which weighs about 100 million Solar masses, orbits the larger one on an eccentric path every 12 years. It comes close enough to fly through the disc of matter around the larger black hole twice each orbit, causing a pair of outbursts, coming and going, that make OJ287 suddenly brighten.
General relativity predicts that the smaller hole’s orbit itself should precess over time. This effect is seen in Mercury’s orbit around the Sun, on a much smaller scale.
In the case of OJ287, the immense gravitational field of the larger black hole causes the smaller black hole’s orbit to precess at an 39° each orbit! The precession changes the timing of when the smaller hole punches through the disc surrounding its larger companion.
About a dozen of the resulting bright outbursts have been observed to date, and astronomers led by Mauri Valtonen of Tuorla Observatory in Finland have analysed them to measure the precession rate of the smaller hole’s orbit. That, along with the period of the orbit, suggests the larger black hole weighs a record 18 billion Suns.
The most recent outburst occurred on 13 September 2007, as predicted by general relativity. “If there was no orbital decay, the outburst would have been 20 days later than when it actually happened,” Valtonen told New Scientist, adding that the black holes are on track to merge within 10,000 years, due to orbital decay caused by gravitational radiation.
Craig Wheeler, of the U of Texas, says the observations of the outbursts fit closely with the expectations from general relativity. “The fact that you can fit Einstein’s theory [so well] … is telling you that that’s working,” he says.