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Ultramassive black hole makes our sun look like a lightweight

At 40 billion solar masses, this thing is an absolute unit.

Astronomers used new data to measure the mass of a black hole in the central bright galaxy shown here: It's 40 billion times more massive than our sun.
Matthias Kluge/USM/MPE

About 700 million light-years from Earth, in the swirling heart of the brightest galaxy of a 500-galaxy cluster called Abell 85, sits the biggest ultramassive black hole we humans have ever recorded in our local universe (the Earth's 1-billion-light-year backyard), weighing in at a record-breaking 40 billion solar masses. 

And on Tuesday, a team of astronomers said they'd peered through all that space -- twice the distance for previous direct black hole mass measurements -- just to find it. The astronomy team from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and the University Observatory Munich published its discovery and analysis of this unusual monster in The Astrophysics Journal

"There are only a few dozen direct mass measurements of supermassive black holes, and never before has it been attempted at such a distance," the study's lead scientist Jens Thomas, said in a statement. "But we already had some idea of the size of the black hole in this particular galaxy, so we tried it."

But how massive is 40 billion solar masses, really? For starters, a solar mass is an absolute unit. It's equivalent to about 2×10^30 kilograms as a measurement. Just one, single solar mass is about as heavy as 333,000 Earths. In November, scientists were stumped when they discovered a black hole so heavy it shouldn't exist. That one was just 70 solar masses, which is already twice as big as current astronomical theories can explain. To put it another way, the astronomers said the newly measured black hole is 40 billion times more massive than our sun.

The MPE said the discovery could change the way astronomers estimate black hole mass in more distant galaxies, where direct measurements of the stellar motions close enough to the black hole aren't possible.