Wednesday, January 10, 2018

How massive is Supermassive? Astronomers measure more black holes, farther away

An artist’s rendering of the inner regions of an active galaxy/quasar, with a supermassive black hole at the center surrounded by a disk of hot material falling in. The inset at the bottom right shows how the brightness of light coming from the two different regions changes with time. 

The top panel of the plot shows the “continuum” region, which originates close in to the black hole (the general vicinity is indicated by the “swoosh” shape). The bottom panel shows the H-beta emission line region, which comes from fast-moving hydrogen gas farther away from the black hole (the general vicinity is indicated by the other “swoosh”). The time span covered by these two light curves is about six months. 

The bottom plot “echoes” the top, with a slight time delay of about 10 days indicated by the vertical line. This means that the distance between these two regions is about 10 light-days (about 150 billion miles, or 240 million kilometers). Image Credit: Nahks Tr’Ehnl ( and Catherine Grier (The Pennsylvania State University) and the SDSS collaboration.  Hi-res image

A graph of known supermassive black hole masses at various “lookback times,” which measures the time into the past we see when we look at each quasar. 

More distant quasars have longer lookback times (since their light takes longer to travel to Earth), so we see them as they appeared in the more distant past. The Universe is about 13.8 billion years old, so the graph goes back to when the Universe was about half of its current age. 

The black hole masses measured in this work are shown as purple circles, while gray squares show black hole masses measured by prior reverberation mapping projects. The sizes of the squares and circles are related to the masses of the black holes they represent. The graph shows black holes from 5 million to 1.7 billion times the mass of the Sun.  Image Credit: Catherine Grier (The Pennsylvania State University) and the SDSS collaboration

Today, astronomers from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) announced new measurements of the masses of a large sample of supermassive black holes far beyond the local Universe.

The results, being presented at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in National Harbor, Maryland and published in the Astrophysical Journal, represent a major step forward in our ability to measure supermassive black hole masses in large numbers of distant quasars and galaxies.
“This is the first time that we have directly measured masses for so many supermassive black holes so far away,” says Catherine Grier, a postdoctoral fellow at the Pennsylvania State University and the lead author of this work. “These new measurements, and future measurements like them, will provide vital information for people studying how galaxies grow and evolve throughout cosmic time.”

Supermassive Black Holes (SMBHs) are found in the centers of nearly every large galaxy, including those in the farthest reaches of the Universe. The gravitational attraction of these supermassive black holes is so great that nearby dust and gas in the host galaxy is inexorably drawn in. The infalling material heats up to such high temperatures that it glows brightly enough to be seen all the way across the Universe. These bright disks of hot gas are known as “quasars,” and they are clear indicators of the presence of supermassive black holes. By studying these quasars, we learn not only about SMBHs, but also about the distant galaxies that they live in. But to do all of this requires measurements of the properties of the SMBHs, most importantly their masses.

The problem is that measuring the masses of SMBHs is a daunting task. Astronomers measure SMBH masses in nearby galaxies by observing groups of stars and gas near the galaxy center — however, these techniques do not work for more distant galaxies, because they are so far away that telescopes cannot resolve their centers. Direct SMBH mass measurements in galaxies farther away are made using a technique called “reverberation mapping.”

Reverberation mapping works by comparing the brightness of light coming from gas very close in to the black hole (referred to as the “continuum” light) to the brightness of light coming from fast-moving gas farther out. Changes occurring in the continuum region impact the outer region, but light takes time to travel outwards, or “reverberate.” This reverberation means that there is a time delay between the variations seen in the two regions. By measuring this time delay, astronomers can determine how far out the gas is from the black hole. Knowing that distance allows them to measure the mass of the supermassive black hole — even though they can’t see the details of the black hole itself.

Over the past 20 years, astronomers have used the reverberation mapping technique to laboriously measure the masses of around 60 SMBHs in nearby active galaxies. Reverberation mapping requires getting observations of these active galaxies, over and over again for several months — and so for the most part, measurements are made for only a handful of active galaxies at a time. Using the reverberation mapping technique on quasars, which are farther away, is even more difficult, requiring years of repeated observations. Because of these observational difficulties, astronomers had only successfully used reverberation mapping to measure SMBH masses for a handful of more distant quasars — until now.


Grier et al. 2017, Astrophysical Journal 851, 21

About this research

This research was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) grant AST-1517113 and the Penn State Willaman Endowment. The SDSS-RM team would also like to acknowledge support from the Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, NSF grants AST-1715579, AST-1515427, AST 15-15115, and AST-1302093, the STFC grant ST/ M001296/1, the National Key R&D Program of China (2016YFA0400702), and the National Science Foundation of China (11473002, 11721303).
This work is also based on observations obtained with MegaPrime/MegaCam, a joint project of CFHT and CEA/DAPNIA, at the Canada-France–Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), which is operated by the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada, the Institut National des Sciences de l’Univers of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique of France, and the University of Hawaii.

About Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Funding for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey IV has been provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, and the Participating Institutions. SDSS acknowledges support and resources from the Center for High-Performance Computing at the University of Utah. The SDSS web site is

SDSS is managed by the Astrophysical Research Consortium for the Participating Institutions of the SDSS Collaboration including the Brazilian Participation Group, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Carnegie Mellon University, the Chilean Participation Group, the French Participation Group, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, The Johns Hopkins University, Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (IPMU) / University of Tokyo, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Leibniz Institut für Astrophysik Potsdam (AIP), Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie (MPIA Heidelberg), Max-Planck-Institut für Astrophysik (MPA Garching), Max-Planck-Institut für Extraterrestrische Physik (MPE), National Astronomical Observatories of China, New Mexico State University, New York University, University of Notre Dame, Observatório Nacional / MCTI, The Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Shanghai Astronomical Observatory, United Kingdom Participation Group, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, University of Arizona, University of Colorado Boulder, University of Oxford, University of Portsmouth, University of Utah, University of Virginia, University of Washington, University of Wisconsin, Vanderbilt University, and Yale University.


Catherine Grier, 
The Pennsylvania State University

Jon Trump, 
University of Connecticut, 

Yue Shen, 
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 

Niel Brandt, 
The Pennsylvania State University, 

Karen Masters, 
SDSS Scientific Spokesperson, Haverford College/University of Portsmouth,
+44 (0)7590 5266005, 

Jordan Raddick, 
SDSS Public Information Officer, Johns Hopkins University,