Deep-space photos reveal thousands of supermassive black holes
A deep-space study by NASA shows the vast void beyond our home is dotted not only with countless galaxies and stars, but also a stunning number of supermassive black holes.
This image, stretching roughly 8.15 light-years across, shows numerous black holes giving off various levels of x-ray energy. (Photo: Chandra Deep Field-South)
Using data collected over 80 days of observations by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory spacecraft, the agency released an image that shows the largest concentration of black holes ever seen. According to scientists, the density as viewed from Earth would be equivalent to about 5,000 objects that would fit into the area of the sky covered by the full moon.
“With this one amazing picture, we can explore the earliest days of black holes in the Universe and see how they change over billions of years,” study leader Niel Brandt of Pennsylvania State University in University Park, said in a statement.
The image above shows black holes emitting x-ray energy various intensities. Red indicates low energy, medium is green, and the highest-energy x-rays observed by Chandra are blue. About 70 percent of the objects in the image are supermassive black holes, with masses estimated to range anywhere from 100,000 to 10 billion times the mass of our sun. Many date back billions of years, forming just after the Big Bang.
While invisible to the naked eye, black holes emit x-rays due to captured matter heating up as it spins faster and faster towards the object’s all-consuming center or event horizon.
You can see an animation above of how this process works courtesy of NASA.
Taking a closer look
A team of astronomers has discovered 83 quasars powered by supermassive black holes in the early universe. (Photo: Subaru Telescope/National Astronomical Observatory of Japan)
More recently, researchers discovered a trove of 83 quasars powered by supermassive black holes. About 48 astronomers from Japan, Taiwan and Princeton University made the discovery, which is important because it tells us more about what the early universe was like.
What you’re seeing in the image above is light from one of the most distant quasars known, powered by a supermassive black hole lying 13.05 billion light-years away from Earth — meaning we are seeing them as they existed 13 billion years ago. For reference, the Big Bang took place 13.8 billion years ago.
“It is remarkable that such massive dense objects were able to form so soon after the Big Bang,” Michael Strauss, a professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University who is one of the co-authors of the study, said in a university news release. “Understanding how black holes can form in the early universe, and just how common they are, is a challenge for our cosmological models.”
The image was obtained by the Hyper Suprime-Cam (HSC) mounted on the Subaru Telescope of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, which is located in Hawaii.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in January 2017.