NASA animation sizes up the universe's biggest black holes

NASA has released a new animation that showcases the size of the universe's biggest black holes. These supermassive black holes are located in the centers of most large galaxies, including our Milky Way. They contain between 100,000 to tens of billions of times more mass than our sun. The animation displays ten supersized black holes that occupy center stage in their host galaxies. Starting near the sun, the camera steadily pulls back to compare ever-larger black holes to different structures in our solar system.

How Supermassive Black Holes Form?

"Direct measurements, many made with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, confirm the presence of more than 100 supermassive black holes," said Jeremy Schnittman, a theorist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. When galaxies collide, their central black holes eventually merge together, resulting in supermassive black holes. This is how these massive structures form.

The First Images of Supermassive Black Holes

In 2019 and 2022, the Event Horizon Telescope produced the first images of giant black holes at the centers of M87 and the Milky Way. They revealed a bright ring of hot orbiting gas surrounding a circular zone of darkness. Any light crossing the event horizon, which is the black hole's point of no return, becomes trapped forever. Any light passing close to it is redirected by the black hole's intense gravity, creating a shadow about twice the size of the black hole's actual event horizon.

Exploring Supermassive Black Holes with NASA's Animation

The new NASA animation displays ten supermassive black holes scaled by the sizes of their shadows. The first black hole that appears in the animation is 1601+3113, located in a dwarf galaxy, hosting a black hole packed with the mass of 100,000 suns. The matter is so compressed that even the black hole's shadow is smaller than our sun.

The black hole at the center of our own galaxy, called Sagittarius A*, weighs 4.3 million suns based on long-term tracking of stars in orbit around it. Its shadow diameter spans about half that of Mercury's orbit in our solar system.

The animation also shows two monster black holes in the galaxy known as NGC 7727, located about 1,600 light-years apart. One weighs 6 million solar masses, and the other more than 150 million suns. Astronomers say the pair will merge within the next 250 million years.

NASA's LISA Mission

"Since 2015, gravitational wave observatories on Earth have detected the mergers of black holes with a few dozen solar masses thanks to the tiny ripples in space-time these events produce," said Goddard astrophysicist Ira Thorpe. "Mergers of supermassive black holes will produce waves of much lower frequencies, which can be detected using a space-based observatory millions of times larger than its Earth-based counterparts."

That's why NASA is collaborating with ESA (European Space Agency) to develop their LISA mission, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, expected to launch sometime in the next decade. LISA will consist of a constellation of three spacecraft in a triangle that shoot laser beams back and forth over millions of miles to precisely measure their separations. This will enable the detection of passing gravitational waves from merging black holes with masses up to a few hundred million suns. Astronomers are exploring other detection techniques to tackle even bigger mergers.

M87's Supermassive Black Hole

At the animation's larger scale lies M87's black hole, now with an updated mass of 5.4 billion suns. Its shadow is about as big as our entire solar system, extending out beyond the orbit of Neptune. The animation also showcases the black hole in the center of the galaxy NGC 4889, which has a mass of 21 billion suns and a shadow size that spans more than twice the distance between the sun and Pluto. The animation provides a visual representation of just how massive and awe-inspiring these cosmic structures can be.

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