Thursday, November 29, 2012

Heavy Darkness

Astronomers have found large black holes at the center of most galaxies and believe them to be a feature of galaxy construction. These are usually bigger than ordinary black holes and are thought to be so because they are located in an area which has so much stuff to fall into them.

But the black hole at the center of NGC 1277, a small galaxy visible in the constellation Perseus, is outsized way beyond what it should be. Astronomers studying it believe it has the mass of 17 billion suns. If you had a dollar for every sun whose mass this black hole contained, you could finance the next 80 or so James Bond movies. Or fund the U.S. government for about 41 hours. You could erase the U.S. deficit -- if you had around 940 friends who all had a dollar for every sun whose mass the NGC 1277 black hole contains. You may tut and say that may be less of a comparison than a dig at the reckless spending done by the federal government, but I would wonder what deserves it more?

Black holes, of course, are the remains of stars which have collapsed so thoroughly and concentrated their mass to a density that creates gravity not even light can escape. I'll let you make your own dig at government spending here.

But anyway, this black hole all by itself has almost 14 percent of NGC 1277's total mass. This would be like a 150-pound person having a 21-pound appendix. That's unusual because of the gigantic size of the black hole, especially in such a small galaxy. It gets weirder because astronomers can see five galaxies near NGC 1277 that resemble it in size -- they could also have outsized black holes at their centers and that would prompt a re-thinking of how galaxies form.

No comments: