Black Hole Found, 17 Billion Times as Massive as Sun

The galaxy NGC 1277 as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA/ESA/Andrew C. Fabian.

You would probably not enjoy the galaxy NGC 1277. Never mind that it's far - 220 million light-years away in the constellation Perseus. The problem is that at its center is a giant, giant black hole, 17 billion times as massive as our sun, so big that scientists calculate it makes up 59 percent of the mass of the galaxy's disc.

Astrophysicists have long believed that there's a black hole at the center of our Milky Way, but it probably accounts for something like 0.1 percent of the galaxy's center. The one in NGC 1277, scientists report in today's edition of the journal Nature, is the second largest they've ever observed, and it upends what they thought about how galaxies form.

Black holes, as you'll recall, are objects in space so massive that their gravity consumes everything around them - stars, planets, matter, energy, even light. Earthly scientists can only observe their effect on the space around them, not see them directly. Be grateful we're not close to one. They're actually useful to astrophysicists in explaining the nice spiral shape of many galaxies - you need something massive in the middle for the stars to circle - but NGC 1277 is an extreme.

"This is a really oddball galaxy," said Karl Gebhardt of the University of Texas at Austin, a member of the team that made the find. "It's almost all black hole. This could be the first object in a new class of galaxy-black hole systems." Gebhardt and colleagues at the McDonald Observatory have been calculating the mass of different black holes - no small task considering their powerful gravity.

The researchers put together an animation of how stars in that distant galaxy would behave, whipping around the center to avoid falling in.

What would you see if you lived on a habitable planet in that far-away galaxy and could look toward the center? Probably nothing that makes sense to human eyes. Black holes have such powerful gravity that they distort the space around them.

Here's hoping your planet is in a nice, stable orbit around a star far from the action. If not, you might be drawn right into the black hole, destroyed so quickly that -