Revealing a monstrous 30-billion-solar-mass black hole through a light-bending event

Using gravitational lensing and supercomputer simulations at the TRAC HPC facility, astronomers led by Durham University have discovered one of the largest black holes ever discovered, with a mass 30 billion times that of the Sun. This groundbreaking technique for simulating the travel of light in the universe allowed researchers to accurately predict the path of light as seen in real Hubble Space Telescope images. This discovery has been published Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Using a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing, a team of astronomers has discovered one of the largest black holes ever discovered.

Light-bending gravity

The team, led by the University of Durham, UK, used gravitational lensing — where a foreground galaxy bends light from a more distant object and magnifies it — and supercomputer simulations at the DiRAC HPC facility to help the team take a closer look at how light bends. A black hole in a galaxy hundreds of millions of light years away from Earth.

The team simulated light traveling through the universe hundreds of thousands of times, with each simulation containing a different mass.[{” attribute=””>black hole, changing light’s journey to Earth.

Artist’s Impression of Black Hole Intense Gravitational Field

An artist’s impression of a black hole, where the black hole’s intense gravitational field distorts the space around it. This warps images of background light, lined up almost directly behind it, into distinct circular rings. This gravitational “lensing” effect offers an observation method to infer the presence of black holes and measure their mass, based on how significant the light bending is. The Hubble Space Telescope targets distant galaxies whose light passes very close to the centers of intervening fore-ground galaxies, which are expected to host supermassive black holes over a billion times the mass of the sun. Credit: ESA/Hubble, Digitized Sky Survey, Nick Risinger (, N. Bartmann

30 billion times the mass of our Sun

When the researchers included an ultramassive black hole in one of their simulations, the path taken by the light from the faraway galaxy to reach Earth matched the path seen in real images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

What the team had found was an ultramassive black hole, an object over 30 billion times the mass of our Sun, in the foreground galaxy – a scale rarely seen by astronomers.

This is the first black hole found using gravitational lensing and the findings were published today (March 29) in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

A video showing how astronomers used gravitational lensing to find a black hole 30 billion times the mass of the Sun in a galaxy 2 billion light-years away. Credit: Durham University

Looking back in cosmic time

Most of the supermassive black holes we know are active, with matter pulled in close to the black hole heating up and emitting energy in the form of light, X-rays, and other radiation.

Gravitational lensing makes it possible to study passive black holes, which is currently impossible in distant galaxies. This approach allows astronomers to find more passive and ultramassive black holes than previously thought and investigate how they grew so massive.

The story of this particular discovery began in 2004, when a fellow Durham University astronomer, Professor Alastair Edge, noticed the giant curvature of a gravitational lens while reviewing images from a galaxy survey.

19 years and with the help of some high resolution images[{” attribute=””>NASA’s Hubble telescope and the DiRAC COSMA8 supercomputer facilities at Durham University, Dr. Nightingale and his team were able to revisit this and explore it further.

Exploring the mysteries of black holes

The team hopes that this is the first step in enabling a deeper exploration of the mysteries of black holes, and that future large-scale telescopes will help astronomers study even more distant black holes to learn more about their size and scale.

Reference: “Abell 1201: detection of an ultramassive black hole in a strong gravitational lens” by J W Nightingale, Russell J Smith, Qiuhan He, Conor M O’Riordan, Jacob A Kegerreis, Aristeidis Amvrosiadis, Alastair C Edge, Amy Etherington, Richard G Hayes, Ash Kelly, John R Lucey and Richard J Massey, 29 March 2023, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stad587

The research was supported by the UK Space Agency, the Royal Society, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and the European Research Council.

This work used both the DiRAC Data Intensive Service (CSD3) and the DiRAC Memory Intensive Service (COSMA8), hosted by University of Cambridge and Durham University on behalf of the DiRAC High-Performance Computing facility.

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