Just how big can a black hole get?

An artist's depiction of the accretion of a thick ring of dust into a supermassive black hole. The accretion produces jets of gamma rays and X-rays. Credit: ESA / V. Beckmann (NASA-GSFC)
An artist’s depiction of the accretion of a thick ring of dust into a supermassive black hole. The accretion produces jets of gamma rays and X-rays. Credit: ESA / V. Beckmann (NASA-GSFC)

Astronomers believe that supermassive black holes lie at the center of virtually all large galaxies, even our own Milky Way. According to a University of Leicester scientist, those black holes could grow as large as 50 billion suns before losing their food supply.

Black holes rely on clumpy, thick disks of dust and gas to sustain themselves. This gas can lose energy and fall inwards, feeding the black hole. But these discs are known to be unstable and prone to crumbling into stars.

Professor Andrew King from the University of Leicester’s Department of Physics and Astronomy calculated how big a black hole would have to be for its outer edge to keep a disc from forming, coming up with the figure of 50 billion solar masses.

His study suggests that without a disc, the black hole would stop growing, meaning 50 billion suns would roughly be the upper limit. The only way it could get larger is if a star happened to fall straight in or another black hole merged with it.

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