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April 6, 2016 01:00 PM (EDT)

News Release Number: STScI-2016-12

Behemoth Black Hole Found in an Unlikely Place

April 6, 2016: Imagine driving through a small town containing modest-sized buildings and seeing a 100-story skyscraper. Astronomers found the equivalent monstrosity in space: a near-record supermassive black hole that weighs 17 billion suns and lives in a cosmic backwater community of a few galaxies. Until now, extremely massive black holes have been found at the cores of very large galaxies in regions of the universe packed with other large galaxies. This is not just coincidence. Like a cosmic Pac-Man, a monster black hole gobbles smaller black holes when two galaxies collide. This game of bumper cars is common in large galaxy clusters. In fact, the current black hole record holder tips the scale at 21 billion suns and resides in the crowded Coma galaxy cluster, located 330 million light-years away.

The newly discovered supersized black hole resides in the center of a massive elliptical galaxy, NGC 1600, located in a small grouping of about 20 galaxies. Astronomers estimate that these smaller galactic groupings are about 50 times more abundant than spectacular galaxy clusters like the Coma cluster. Based on this discovery, astronomers are now asking, Is this the tip of an iceberg? Maybe there are more monster black holes out there that don't live in a skyscraper in Manhattan, but in a tall building somewhere in the Midwestern plains.

To learn even more about the behemoth black hole in galaxy NGC 1600, join astronomers and scientists during a live Hubble Hangout discussion at 3pm EDT on Thurs., April 7, at http://hbbl.us/z7j.

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Credit: NASA, ESA, C.-P. Ma (University of California, Berkeley), and J. Thomas (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching, Germany)