• A computer-simulated image of a supermassive black hole at the core of a galaxy. (Photo: NASA, ESA, and D. Coe, J. Anderson, and R. van der Marel (STScI))

Scientists in Canada, Germany and the U.S. have discovered a supermassive black hole 17 billion times the mass of the sun.

Located at the centre of the galaxy NGC 1600—a galaxy about 200 million light-years from Earth—the black hole is the second largest black hole on record. (The largest black hole ever discovered was found in 2011. It is 21 billion times the mass of the sun and in a group of galaxies referred to as the Coma Cluster.)

NGC 1600 is an unexpected location for a giant black hole. The galaxy resides in the constellation Eridanus, which is part of an average-sized group of 20 galaxies. Supermassive black holes are generally found in galaxy clusters consisting of more than a hundred galaxies.

John Blakeslee is an astronomer at the NRC Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Victoria, B.C. He and his five colleagues (in a team led by Chung-Pei Ma, a cosmologist and astrophysicist at the University of California Berkeley) discovered the black hole.

"This is an exciting discovery and demonstrates that for galaxies, as for people, appearances can be misleading,” said Blakeslee. “You never know what huge dark abyss may be lurking beneath a calm exterior. This is likely just the first of many extremely massive black holes that will be found lurking in galaxies in the backwaters of the universe."

The supermassive black hole is currently dormant (meaning it’s not swallowing the gas and dust particles that surround it). It was initially spotted in data that came from the McDonald Observatory in Texas for the MASSIVE Survey, an initiative launched by Blakeslee and his colleagues back in 2014. The black hole was officially discovered using the Gemini North 8-metre telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii.