There’s jumbo shrimp and accurate rumors; now there’s even a mini supermassive black hole. Astronomers have identified the smallest supermassive black hole ever observed, and while it’s considered a shrimp as far as supermassive black holes go, this guy is still pretty big: the mass of the black hole in galaxy NGC 4178 is estimated to be about 200,000 times the mass of our Sun. But it was a surprise that this galaxy had a black hole at all.
Astronomers using the Chandra X-Ray Observatory in conjunction with other observatories took a look at NGC 4178, a late-type spiral galaxy located about 55 million light years from Earth. It does not contain a bright central concentration, or bulge, of stars in its center, and so it was thought that perhaps this galaxy was one of the few that didn’t harbor a black hole.
With using Chandra’s X-Ray vision, as well as infrared data the NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and radio data from the Very Large Array, Nathan Secrest, from George Mason University and his team identified a weak X-ray source at the center of the galaxy, and also saw varying brightness at infrared wavelengths, suggesting that a black hole was actually in the center of NGC 4178 and was pulling in material from its surroundings. The same data also suggested that light generated by this infalling material is heavily absorbed by gas and dust and was therefore surrounding a black hole.
They were able to estimate the size of the black hole by using the known relationship between the mass of a black hole and the amount of X-rays and radio waves it generates.
While this is the lowest mass supermassive black holes ever observed, astronomers admit this is probably near the extreme low-mass end of being in the “supermassive” range. And as the team pointed out in their paper, there is increasing evidence that several late-type galaxies do host supermassive black holes, and that a classical bulge is not a requirement for a supermassive black hole to form and grow.