We Knew Black Holes Were Massive. Now Double That.

By Eliza Strickland | June 9, 2009 7:27 pm

M87 galaxyResearchers have recalculated the mass of a gigantic black hole at the core of the M87 galaxy, and found that it’s about two times as massive as previously estimated: The new study says that M87’s black hole weighs the same as 6.4 billion suns. Researchers say the findings may indicate that many black holes have been underestimated, and also say that the results from this “local” galaxy only 50 million light-years away may solve a mystery regarding the extremely distant black holes known as quasars.

Astronomers had previously estimated M87’s total mass, calculating how much of that mass came from both the galaxy’s stars and its central black hole. But previous models didn’t have the supercomputing power to estimate the mass contributed by the galaxy’s “dark halo.” The dark halo is a spherical region surrounding the galaxy that extends beyond its main visible structure. It contains “dark matter”, an as yet unidentified material that cannot be directly detected by telescopes but which astronomers know is there from its gravitational interaction with everything else that can be seen [BBC News].

For the new study, which was presented at the American Astronomical Society meeting and will be published later this year in the Astrophysical Journal, researchers employed the gargantuan computing power of the Lonestar system … at the University of Texas. The Lonestar has 5,840 processing cores and can perform 62 trillion “floating-point operations” per second. For comparison, the most state-of-the-art laptop computer has only two processing cores and performs only 10 billion such operations per second [AFP].

With that computational firepower, researchers determined that a large bulk of the mass initially thought to belong to stars at M87’s core is actually locked up in the halo at the galaxy’s outer edge. But the actual mass of the core is still thought to be the same. So if the extra mass isn’t tied up in stars, it must belong to the supermassive black hole, Gebhardt explained [National Geographic News]. While this new calculation of the black hole’s mass was determined solely via computer modeling, researcher Karl Gebhardt says that not-yet-published observations from the world’s most sophisticated telescopes back up his findings.

The new numbers also make sense of previous observations of quasars, the distant black holes that shine brightly as material spirals towards the black hole’s event horizon–the point beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape. These quasars were believed to be colossal, around 10 billion solar masses, “but in local galaxies, we never saw black holes that massive, not nearly,” Gebhardt said. “The suspicion was before that the quasar masses were wrong,” he said [SPACE.com]. Now, by boosting the mass of local black holes, researchers have bolstered the case for prior estimations of the quasars’ mass.

Related Content:
80beats: Chicken-or-Egg Problem: Did Black Holes Form Before the Galaxies That Surround Them?
80beats: Two Stars Are Born Near the Perilous Edge of a Black Hole
80beats: Confirmed: Monstrous Black Hole Lurks in Our Galaxy’s Center
80beats: Researchers Look Into a Black Hole (But Does The Black Hole Look Back?)

Image: NASA/CXC/CfA/W. Forman et al./NRAO/AUI/NSF/W. Cotton;/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), and R. Gendler. The M87 galaxy. 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Space
  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    M87 needs to stop the late night brownie baking or maybe lay off the wacky tobaccy and trips to the convenience store.

  • zach

    You know how it is Nick, you’re just a meager 6 billion solar masses when you graduate, but then you head off to school. One meal-plan and terrible dining hall food later, bang, 10 billion solar masses and your cutting extra belt notches. Poor M87.

  • Albert Bakker

    Does this have implications for other dark matter speculations if (x) many of this MACHO component are 100% off from previous guesstimates? And if so to what extent, I mean do I have to scratch & scribble in some (fairly new) books now or what?

  • Tim

    I really have some reservations. Relying on a yet to be confirmed dark “aether” leaves more to be asked than can be answered. It’s just one wall after another.

  • Albert Bakker

    Well, it leaves one puzzled for a moment that the mass of a black hole near the center of a thoroughly studied galaxy seems to depend for about 23% on the number of floating points your computer can perform.

    A quick calculation points out that if the previous estimate was 6.4E9 solar masses and now 8.4E9 then that would mean if the previous estimate was calculated on a 10E9 floating points operating dual core laptop the Lonestar 5840 core – mass inducing calculation device produces a whopping 6,42E25 kg per floating point.

    One could grow terrified at the prospect of calculating black holes with quantum computers. We might be crushed instantaneously a millisecond or so before [ENTER] says click.


    6.4 billion times the mass of our own star!


  • FILTHpig

    Does this quasar make me look fat?

  • SirWilhelm

    Does anyone see a Black Hole in that pic? Has anyone ever seen a Black Hole? This is not science, this is speculation. Building a computer model is just trying to prove something exists with math, which doesn’t really prove anything but that you can do math, and what computer can’t? No one has found any Dark Matter or Dark Energy, all we are getting from Cosmology is a Dark Universe of fiction. They’ve yet to find a Higgs-Bosun or a gravity wave, despite many experiments designed to find them. It seems you’re all enjoying the science fiction like this they’re feeding you, I hope so, cause it’s costing you plenty, a lot more than you pay for Sci Fi or Fantasy at the book store. There are other competing theories to the cosmology you see here, look for them if you have an open mind.

  • FILTHpig

    Does anyone “see” SirWilhelm? Just because he supposedly wrote the above doesn’t mean he exists… that would be pure “speculation”! There may be other competing posts to the gibberish you see above, look for them IF YOU’RE NOT A TOOL.

  • mharratsc

    FILTHpig must be an astronomer- I believe they take an entire semester of Pseudo-Skepticism as a pre-requisite.


    Sorry, I can’t help myself when I see really juvenile behavior in a forum like this. Astronomy has left the Sciences and become a religion. “There can be no other models than gravity or YOU’RE A TOOL!” You cannot falsify the Gravitational Model because we have FAITH! Hallelujah! We BELIEVE!! *Church Lady dance*

    The only thing seen at the center of the galaxy so far has been enormous amounts of energized plasmas and synchotron radiation, a stellar nursery that shouldn’t exist according to the Gravitational accretion model, a galactic “accretion disk” that seems to be EXcreting, and filaments of plasma in arc and glow modes generating electromagnetic waves- ex. the Double Helix Nebula- Birkland currents entering glow mode in the denser plasma near the galactic center, right on the galactic polar axis.

    Any freshman Electrical Engineering student can tell you that any semi-conductive plasma generating an electric and magnetic field is charged, and therefore has a current flowing through it. Electromagnetic attraction is 27 orders of magnitude or so stronger than Gravitational Attraction. You don’t need “the mass of 4 billion suns” or whatever to hold a galaxy together if it’s generating it’s own electromagnetic field.

    Elementary Physics.

  • FILTHpig

    Well, first of all, NOT religious (unless I’m in a plane that is about to crash, then I may puss-out and start praying to any and all Gods!). And, obviously, I’m not a astronomer. Just a lowly (and juvenile!) blog reader with an intrest in cosmology.

    That being said, mharratsc, if you truly ARE the free-thinking genius that you make yourself out to be, then write a paper on your “mass of electro-charged plasma at the center of the galaxy, holding our galaxy together with it’s own magnetic field” theory. I’d love to take a gander, as I’m sure many who are actually in the “field” would.

    Also, desipte your thrilling post, I still consider SirWilhelm a tool. “See other competing theories”? No, you didn’t offer any. But I’m open to one that makes as much or more sense than the current one. Maybe the next Einstien is right here, reading this blog. Maybe his name is SirWilhelm or mharratsc. Then again, maybe not.

  • Anaconda

    There is a compelling alternative theory to the gravity “only” model. It is called Plasma Cosmology. Basically, PC states that electromagnetic force is also a component of the large scale structures of the Universe.

    The problem with so-called “black holes” is not only have they never been directly observed or their so-called “event horizon”, but it is not even rigorously quantified. So-called “black holes” are defined as a point-mass singularity with infintie density within an infinitely small volume.

    Infinity can’t be quantified by definition.

    So, “black holes” don’t sit on a foundation of rigorous quantification as “modern” astronomers would have the general public believe, it’s strictly a product of men’s imaginations with no quantified theoretical foundation.

    When electromagnetism is considered you don’t need “dark” matter which has never been detected, or “dark” energy, again never detected.

    Astronomy is on the wrong path.

  • FILTHpig

    IF there is data on Plasma Cosmology describing, in detail, the formation of galaxies, I can’t find it (not very “compelling”!). I realize the internet is limited, and once again NOT being a cosmologist, I may not even be searching the right places.

    That being said, from what I can gather, plasma cosmology generally seems to be lacking in detail compared to mainstream cosmology. It’s also missing most of the key predictions and features of the current model.

    So, once again, PROVE IT. We ALL should consider new ideas and theories but it appears the current (accepted) cosmology model being used to solve this problem is leaving your “plasma cosmology” in the dust!

  • mharratsc

    Google Results 1 – 10 of about 2,200,000 for plasma cosmology. (0.11 seconds)

    Where did you look, Pig?? o.O

    Best intro to subject at Electric-Cosmos. That’s an org.

    Subjective coverage with lay explanations (multi-disciplinary): thunderbolts info.

    If you want white papers, peer reviews, and math (*shudder*) then check out plasmascience universe.

    Just Google any of those and the first result will be the correct link.

    You stated “we should ALL consider new ideas and theories”… here’s your chance to prove it. Your notion that current model is leaving PC theory in the dust is a matter of perspective, in my opinion. I think standard cosmology has more kids in the choir, but PC puts *actual* physics to work on the observations, rather than ad hoc explanations to save falsified theories. As a matter of fact- there is a list of predictions to be found at Thunderbolts that might surprise you…

    Happy learning :)

  • SpaceTime Pudding

    Wow, people still believe in black holes?
    There will be mathmaticians in the bread lines, once the masses figure out they’ve been fools all these years.

  • http://zhoakdka.blogspot.com/ Sigrid Santizo

    One other issue is that if you are in a situation where you will not have a cosigner then you may really need to try to wear out all of your financing options. You will find many funds and other grants that will provide you with funds to support with college expenses. Thanks a lot for the post.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar