New observations with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) provide an unprecedented close-up view of a swirling disk of cold interstellar gas rotating around a supermassive black hole. This disk lies at the center of NGC 3258, a massive elliptical galaxy about 100 million light-years from Earth. Based on these observations, a team led by astronomers from Texas A&M University and the University of California, Irvine, have determined that this black hole weighs a staggering 2.25 billion solar masses, the most massive black hole measured with ALMA to date.
Though supermassive black holes can have masses that are millions to billions of times that of the Sun, they account for just a small fraction of the mass of an entire galaxy. Isolating the influence of a black hole's gravity from the stars, interstellar gas, and dark matter in the galactic center is challenging and requires highly sensitive observations on phenomenally small scales.
Motion - Material - Hole - Hole - Mass
"Observing the orbital motion of material as close as possible to a black hole is vitally important when accurately determining the black hole's mass." said Benjamin Boizelle, a postdoctoral researcher at Texas A&M University and lead author on the study appearing in the Astrophysical Journal. "These new observations of NGC 3258 demonstrate ALMA's amazing power to map the rotation of gaseous disks around supermassive black holes in stunning detail."
Astronomers use a variety of methods to measure black hole masses. In giant elliptical galaxies, most measurements come from observations of the orbital motion of stars around the black hole, taken in visible or infrared light. Another technique, using naturally occurring water masers (radio-wavelength lasers) in gas clouds orbiting around black holes, provides higher precision, but these masers are very rare and are associated almost exclusively with spiral galaxies having smaller black holes.
Years - ALMA
During the past few years, ALMA has pioneered a new...
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