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Scientists announced today that they found a new supermassive black hole. It's perhaps the largest black hole ever discovered. As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, it lives in a kind of cosmic backwater.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: People get a lot of their ideas about black holes from movies like, well, the 1970s classic "The Black Hole."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BLACK HOLE")
PERCY RODRIGUEZ: It is unavoidable, moving through space swallowing everything in its path - radio waves, light, even planets and stars.
CHUNG-PEI MA: People find them maybe terrifying, scary. I always get asked, would we get sucked into them?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Chung-Pei Ma. She's an astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley. And in the journal "Nature," her team describes a black hole in a distant galaxy that might truly frighten you. It is 17 billion times more massive than our sun. That's way, way bigger than the black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy.
MA: I hate to call that one puny, but it is only 4 million solar masses, and we found one that's 17 billion solar masses.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: There's only a couple of other black holes known to be about this size. Ma and her colleagues previously found those in busy, crowded regions of space with lots of large galaxies. This new black hole is different. It's in a boring group of average galaxies.
MA: It sort of like you would expect to find skyscrapers at the center of Manhattan, but this is more like finding a very, very tall building somewhere in a small town in the U.S.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says this might mean these monster black holes are more common than previously thought. Another black hole researcher Karl Gephardt is at the University of Texas at Austin. Over Skype, I asked him why this black hole was so special.
KARL GEPHARDT: Because it's the biggest (laughter), and I think it's as simple as that.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Do you think it is the biggest?
GEPHARDT: It has the highest confidence of anything I've seen of being the largest black hole, yes.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The Guinness World Records does list another one as the biggest, but he says there was a lot of uncertainty in the measurement of that one. Anyway, what's really important about extreme examples like these is that they let scientists test their theories about black holes and how they help make galaxies.
GEPHARDT: And that's how you understand, you know, effectively where we come from, where the sun comes from, where the Earth comes from.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And that's not so scary. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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