Letter | Published:

A 17-billion-solar-mass black hole in a group galaxy with a diffuse core

Nature volume 532, pages 340342 (21 April 2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

Quasars are associated with and powered by the accretion of material onto massive black holes; the detection of highly luminous quasars with redshifts greater than z = 6 suggests that black holes of up to ten billion solar masses already existed 13 billion years ago1. Two possible present-day ‘dormant’ descendants of this population of ‘active’ black holes have been found2 in the galaxies NGC 3842 and NGC 4889 at the centres of the Leo and Coma galaxy clusters, which together form the central region of the Great Wall3—the largest local structure of galaxies. The most luminous quasars, however, are not confined to such high-density regions of the early Universe4,5; yet dormant black holes of this high mass have not yet been found outside of modern-day rich clusters. Here we report observations of the stellar velocity distribution in the galaxy NGC 1600—a relatively isolated elliptical galaxy near the centre of a galaxy group at a distance of 64 megaparsecs from Earth. We use orbit superposition models to determine that the black hole at the centre of NGC 1600 has a mass of 17 billion solar masses. The spatial distribution of stars near the centre of NGC 1600 is rather diffuse. We find that the region of depleted stellar density in the cores of massive elliptical galaxies extends over the same radius as the gravitational sphere of influence of the central black holes, and interpret this as the dynamical imprint of the black holes.

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Acknowledgements

C.-P.M., J.E.G. and R.J. are supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). J.E.G. is supported by the Miller Institute for Basic Research in Science, University of California, Berkeley. N.J.M. is supported by the Beatrice Watson Parrent Fellowship and Plaskett Fellowship. The spectroscopic data presented here were obtained from the Gemini Observatory and the McDonald Observatory. Gemini is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., under a cooperative agreement with the NSF on behalf of the Gemini partnership. The McDonald Observatory is operated by the University of Texas at Austin. The photometric data presented here are based partly on observations made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, and obtained from the Hubble Legacy Archive, which is a collaboration between the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI/NASA), the Space Telescope European Coordinating Facility (ST-ECF/ESA) and the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre (CADC/NRC/CSA).

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Max Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Giessenbachstraße 1, D-85741 Garching, Germany

    • Jens Thomas
  2. Universitätssternwarte München, Scheinerstraße 1, D-81679 München, Germany

    • Jens Thomas
  3. Department of Astronomy, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • Chung-Pei Ma
  4. Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, NRC Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, Victoria, British Columbia V9E 2E7, Canada

    • Nicholas J. McConnell
    •  & John P. Blakeslee
  5. Department of Astrophysical Sciences, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, USA

    • Jenny E. Greene
  6. Department of Physics, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • Ryan Janish

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Contributions

J.T. developed and carried out the stellar orbit modelling. J.T. and C.-P.M. wrote the manuscript. C.-P.M. led the Gemini observation proposal. J.E.G. performed the stellar population analysis. N.J.M. and R.J. reduced the spectroscopic data. J.P.B. provided photometric analysis. All authors contributed to the MASSIVE Survey, the kinematic extractions, the interpretive analysis of the observations and the writing of the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Jens Thomas or Chung-Pei Ma.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature17197

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