Supercomputer helps detect black hole with mass of 30 billion Suns

Astronomers used a combination of gravitational lensing and simulations to detect the cosmic behemoth.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of a black hole.
An artist's impression of a black hole.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center 

A team of astronomers used a novel method to discover one of the biggest black holes ever discovered, a press statement reveals.

The team, led by scientists at Durham University, UK, used a combination of gravitational lensing and supercomputer simulations to gain new insight into the cosmic giant located hundreds of millions of light-years from Earth.

They found an ultramassive black hole more than 30 billion times the mass of our Sun.

Seeking black holes with supercomputer simulations

The new discovery constitutes the first time a black hole has been discovered using the supercomputer-enabled technique. The novel method sees light simulated traveling through the Universe hundreds of thousands of times. Each simulation features a different mass black hole, each of which changes the trajectory of the light traveling toward Earth.

The method works by finding the correct match for the light seen in real images captured, in this case, by the Hubble Space Telescope. In other words, when the team simulated light passing through an ultramassive black hole, the path taken by the light from the distant galaxy matched the path observed in real life. For their simulations, the team used Durham University's DiRAC COSMA8 supercomputer facilities.

"This particular black hole, which is roughly 30 billion times the mass of our Sun, is one of the biggest ever detected and on the upper limit of how large we believe black holes can theoretically become, so it is an extremely exciting discovery," lead author Dr. James Nightingale from the Department of Physics at Durham University said in the statement.

What is gravitational lensing?

A gravitational lens occurs when the gravitational field of a galaxy or other massive space structure bends light coming from the cosmos behind it.

The bending of the light acts somewhat like a lens, allowing us to gain a zoomed-in image of the distant cosmos by looking at the point where the light is curved. This principle has been used in James Webb images to reveal some of the most ancient galaxies ever observed.

"Most of the biggest black holes that we know about are in an active state, where matter pulled in close to the black hole heats up and releases energy in the form of light, X-rays, and other radiation."

"However, gravitational lensing makes it possible to study inactive black holes, something not currently possible in distant galaxies. This approach could let us detect many more black holes beyond our local universe and reveal how these exotic objects evolved further back in cosmic time."

The team, who published their findings this week in a new paper in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, believe their method could allow for the discovery of many more inactive and ultramassive black holes. It could also help scientists to determine how these colossal giants grew to their massive size.

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