It’s something straight out of a science-fiction movie: two monster black holes, weighing as much as 10 billion suns, that threaten to swallow everything within a distance equal to five times our solar system region.
Thanks to the work of UT astronomy professor Karl Gebhardt and graduate student Jeremy Murphy, the existence of these massive holes—the largest ever discovered—is fact rather than fiction.
The pair was part of a research team that utilized the Gemini and Keck telescopes in Hawaii, in addition to the Mitchell Spectograph at UT’s McDonald Observatory, to measure the masses of the two objects. This was done by recording observations of fast-moving stars and the outer regions, called dark halos, of the black holes.
And the McDonald Observatory wasn’t the only UT entity to get in on the action. The Texas Advanced Computing Center lent the research team its supercomputers to help them better understand the changes in the holes’ atmospheres. (See what else TACC is up to here.)
“We needed computer simulations that can accommodate such huge changes in scale,” Gebhardt says. “This can only be done on a supercomputer.”
The black holes being measured are at the centers of two separate galaxies, approximately 300 million light years from Earth. They are thought to be the remnants of quasars, or bright galaxies, the existed during the early days of the universe.
The team’s research can be found in the latest issue of the journal Nature, starting Dec. 8.
Artist rendering by Lynette Cook, courtesy of McDonald Observatory.