Astronomers are Getting Really Good at Weighing Baby Supermassive Black Holes

Illustration of an active quasar. New research shows that SMBHs eat rapidly enough to trigger them. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

In the 1970s, astronomers deduced that the persistent radio source coming from the center of our galaxy was actually a supermassive black hole (SMBH). This black hole, known today as Sagittarius A*, is over 4 million solar masses and is detectable by the radiation it emits in multiple wavelengths. Since then, astronomers have found that SMBHs reside at the center of most massive galaxies, some of which are far more massive than our own! Over time, astronomers observed relationships between the properties of galaxies and the mass of their SMBHs, suggesting that the two co-evolve.

Using the GRAVITY+ instrument at the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI), a team from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) recently measured the mass of an SMBH in SDSS J092034.17+065718.0. At a distance of about 11 billion light-years from our Solar System, this galaxy existed when the Universe was just two billion years old. To their surprise, they found that the SMBH weighs in at a modest 320 million solar masses, which is significantly under-massive compared to the mass of its host galaxy. These findings could revolutionize our understanding of the relationship between galaxies and the black holes residing at their centers.

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Astronomers Get as Close as They Can to Seeing the Black Hole at the Heart of the Milky Way

This visualization uses data from simulations of orbital motions of gas swirling around at about 30% of the speed of light on a circular orbit around the black hole. Credit: ESO/Gravity Consortium/L. Calçada

Since the 1970s, astronomers have theorized that at the center of our galaxy,  about 26,000 light-years from Earth, there exists a supermassive black hole (SMBH) known as Sagittarius A*. Measuring an estimated 44 million km (27.3 million mi) in diameter and weighing in at roughly 4 million Solar masses, this black hole is believed to have had a profound influence on the formation and evolution of our galaxy.

And yet, scientists have never been able to see it directly and its existence has only been inferred from the effect it has on the stars and material surrounding it. However, new observations conducted by the GRAVITY collaboration** has managed to yield the most detailed observations to date of the matter surrounding Sagittarius A*, which is the strongest evidence yet that a black hole exists at the center of the Milky Way. Continue reading “Astronomers Get as Close as They Can to Seeing the Black Hole at the Heart of the Milky Way”