New NASA video puts the immensity of supermassive black holes into perspective

The incredible mass and density of a supermassive black hole is hard to wrap out brains around, but a new NASA animation at least makes it easier to visualize.
John Loeffler
A black hole with a bright accretion disk
A black hole is immense, but supermassive black holes take it to another level


Supermassive black holes are impossible for humans to truly get their head around, since even the heaviest object we can really understand is many orders of magnitude lighter than even the smallest of black holes in space.

To help us better visualize the differences in weights and the size of a black hole's "shadow", NASA has produced a mesmerizing animation that compares known black holes to the heaviest object any of us have ever seen for ourselves: the sun.

Weighing in at one solar mass (our sun being the reference measurement for other large objects in the universe), our sun could never collapse into a black hole, as this is only possible once a star reaches about 3 to 10 times the mass of our sun. So, already, any stellar mass black hole in outer space is going to have at least three times the weight of the heaviest object in out solar system.

These stellar mass black holes are actually rather small relative to the size of the sun. NASA's animation makes this clear right from the jump when the first black hole our sun is compared to, being about roughly the same size across, is the supermassive black hole in the dwarf galaxy J1501, which weighs in at an astonishing 100,000 solar masses.

This is helpful in providing us with a nice, clean number associated with a physical dimension of length that we can understand. We can look up at the sun from Earth, and understand that the solar disk we see if it were instead replaced by the shadow of the event horizon of J1601's black hole, would put an object 100,000 times the weight of the sun in the middle of our home system. The implication for the catastrophic damage to the planet this would likely have is clear, and it's the kind of analogy that's just within reach of our understanding.

It goes quickly down the gravity well from there as the camera pulls back through the length of the solar system, revealing other known supermassive black holes along the more familiar territory of the asteroid belt and the orbit of the outer gas giants. By the time we get to the Kuiper Belt, we've come upon the biggest supermassive black hole that we know of, Ton 618, weighing in at an incredible 66 billion solar masses. Even then, Ton 618 is still very much within our solar system, at least physically.

How do supermassive black holes get so big?

“Direct measurements, many made with the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, confirm the presence of more than 100 supermassive black holes,” Jeremy Schnittman, a theorist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a NASA statement this week. “How do they get so big?"

It's a hard question to answer, but new developments in gravitational wave telescopy, which relies on lasers shot toward sensors at extremely long distances to measure the subtlest fluctuations in space-time caused by the mergers of neutron stars and black holes, may hold the answer.

That's why NASA has been partnering with the European Space Agency (ESA) for the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) project, which wants to take the incredible sensitivity of Earth-based gravitational wave detectors and supercharge it by putting three emitting sensors even farther apart in space. This would make the resulting telescope even more sensitive to even the most supermassive black hole collisions.

“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 astrophisicist 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.”

How LISA will help explore the most ancient of supermassives

When it comes to the super-est of supermassive black holes, like Ton 618, its extreme weight isn't its only extraordinary characteristic to consider.

Ton 618 is one of the farthest supermassive black holes we've ever detected, making it among the oldest of objects in the observable universe. How these behemoths formed at any time is fascinating in itself, and researchers hope that one day LISA and other instruments like it will be able to measure the gravitational waves of supermassive black hole collisions that some speculate were more common in the early universe.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board