Prepare to have your mind blown: researchers have recently discovered one of the biggest black holes yet detected in the universe, clocking in at a whopping 33 billion times the mass of the sun! Located in a galaxy at the center of the Abell 1201 cluster, about 2.7 billion light-years away, this cosmic colossus is not just supermassive, but ultra-massive. It's on the upper limits of how large scientists believe black holes can theoretically become, making this discovery an extremely exciting one.
As you might know, black holes emit no light we can detect, which makes them quite difficult to spot in space. But scientists have found that by observing the effect black holes have on the space around them, they can gain valuable information. For instance, when space-time around a black hole is warped by mass, light traveling through that region has to travel along a curved path - this is known as gravitational lensing. The light then warps, stretches, and often becomes magnified, resulting in distorted images of distant galaxies.
In the case of the Abell 1201 cluster, the strong gravitational lensing was the first clue that led scientists on the path to discovering this massive black hole. Astronomers found a large, diffuse elliptical galaxy, known as the brightest cluster galaxy (BCG), with a smear of light that appeared alongside it - this was the result of the black hole's lensing effect. However, until recently, the data and technology available were not advanced enough to provide a detailed enough image of the black hole at the galaxy's center. A team of scientists from Durham University, led by physicist James Nightingale, then conducted hundreds of thousands of simulations of light moving through the universe using advanced technology to better understand the data. Their findings indicated the presence of a massive black hole at the center of the BCG, with an estimated mass of 32.7 billion times the mass of the sun.
To put it in perspective, the event horizon of this black hole's diameter spans more than 1,290 astronomical units, while Pluto's distance from the sun is only 40 astronomical units. This discovery not only opens doors for further research into black holes, but it further awe-inspires us to continue to explore and study the wonders of the universe.