In this artist's rendition, the yellow region at the center represents a supermassive black hole. Around are dust grains mixed with heated, outflowing gas. But just how big is "supermassive?" Find out in the next photo!
Image Credit: Stocktrek Images/Getty Images
This diagram shows different sizes of black holes as compared to our sun. As you can see, a black hole could swallow millions of stars. And in fact, they often do -- see how black holes stifle stars next.
Supermassive black holes in some giant galaxies create such a hostile environment, they shut down the formation of new stars. Strangely, black holes lie at the center of most galaxies, as shown in the next image.
Image Credit: Stocktrek Images/Getty Images
Like most galaxies, NGC 1097, a barred spiral galaxy, has a supermassive black hole at its center. The next image is a new Hubble photo showing another black hole at the center of a galaxy.
Image Credit: Stocktrek Images/Getty Images
This is a new composite image of a galaxy cluster located about 2.6 billion light-years away. The three views of the region were taken with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in February 2006. See a massive radio telescope in the next photo.
Image Credit: Stocktrek Images/Getty Images
Dr. Andreas Eckhart is the Professor for Experimental Physics at the University of Cologne. He has been observing galaxies and black holes in the depths of space for years. Next, see one of Einstein's most famous discoveries: the wormhole.
Image Credit: Peter Ginter/Getty Images
This is a depiction of a wormhole, or an Einstein-Rosen bridge, bursting open in the vacuum of space. Many believe these curves in spacetime could enable time travel. Find out about another mystery of space in the next photo: the elusive dark matter.
Image Credit: Stockbyte/Getty Images
Dark matter composition is up for debate, with subatomic particles and black holes considered as candidates.
Is this a giant smurf floating in the cosmos? No, this image is from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and displays the central region of the galaxy dubbed M82. It has two bright X-ray sources that may be intermediate-mass black holes (with masses falling in between those of the stellar-mass and supermassive type). These black holes somehow avoided falling into the center of the galaxy and may be examples of the seeds required for the growth of supermassive black holes in galaxies -- such as the one in our own Milky Way. Next up, we'll look at a ring that wouldn't exactly fit on a finger.
Image Credit: NASA/CXC/Tsinghua Univ./H. Feng et al.
Here, on the right, we see a ring of black holes, part of Arp 147, a pair of interacting galaxies located about 430 million light years from Earth. Arp 147 contains the remnant of a spiral galaxy (right) that collided with the ellipses-shaped galaxy to the left. This collision has produced an expanding wave of star formation that shows up as a blue ring containing many massive young stars. These stars race through their evolution in a few million years or less and explode as supernovas, leaving behind neutron stars and black holes. A fraction of those neutron stars and black holes will have companion stars, and may become bright X-ray sources as they pull in matter from their companions. Scientists conclude that the nine X-ray sources scattered around the ring in Arp 147 are so bright that they must be black holes. Their masses are likely 10 to 20 times that of our sun. Researchers estimate that the most intense level of star formation within the ring may have ended about 15 million years ago.
Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/MIT/S. Rappaport et al., Optical: NASA/STScI
In this image, we see four small, young galaxies. Their portraits were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. They might look like rough smudges to the untrained eye, but to NASA scientists they provide detailed information about the different wavelengths of light coming from the galaxies. Such images from the Hubble give them a view of galaxies as they appeared when the universe was less than a quarter of its current age, and it shows them that central black holes formed at an early stage in galaxy evolution. Next, we'll check out a black hole that must not be eating its Wheaties.
Image Credit: NASA; ESA; A. Koekemoer, STScI; J. Trump and S. Faber, University of California, Santa Cruz; and the CANDELS Team
This illustration depicts the lowest-mass known black hole, which belongs to a binary star system called XTE J1650-500. The lean and mean black hole has only about 3.8 times the mass of our sun, and is orbited by a companion star, as shown in the artist's conception. Next, we'll get a look at a supermassive neighbor of ours, only 50 million light years away.
Image Credit: NASA/CXC/A. Hobar
NGC 1068, shown in this composite image, a scant 50 million light years away, is a neighbor of ours -- one of the nearest and brightest galaxies that has a fast-growing, supermassive black hole. Research shows that a strong wind is being pushed outward from the center of NGC 1068 at a speed of about 1 million miles per hour (1.6 million kilometers per hour). The wind likely starts as surrounding gas that accelerates and heats up as it swirls helplessly toward the black hole. A portion of the gas is pulled into the black hole, but some of it is blown away. Every year, several times the mass of our sun gets tossed off to faraway distances -- about 3,000 light years from the black hole itself. Scientists theorize the wind probably carries enough energy to heat the surrounding gas and suppress extra star formation. That tells researchers how a supermassive black hole can change the development of its home galaxy. The impact of the blown-away gas packs enough of a punch to greatly impact the "neighborhood."
Image Credit: X-ray (NASA/CXC/MIT/C. Canizares, D. Evans et al), Optical (NASA/STScI), Radio (NSF/NRAO/VLA)
NASA's Spitzer and Chandra space telescopes found this group of active, supermassive black holes -- or quasars in a field of the cosmos called Goods-South. This image, taken by the Spitzer in infrared, shows a fraction of these black holes in the area, found at the heart of faraway, massive galaxies (the galaxies have been circled in blue). Combining different observation techniques told scientists that the infrared-bright galaxies are hiding lots of black holes that had existed in theory but had never been seen. In a nutshell: The excess of infrared light they observed is being produced by the growing black holes. Next, we'll see what it looks like when black holes begin merger talks.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ Commissariat a l'Energie Atomique
The two bright, point-like spots in the center of this image are two merging black holes that are only about 3,000 light years from each other. They live in an area called NGC 6240, and researchers think they have been spiraling toward each other for about 30 million years (the merger must be slow thanks to legal paperwork). The belief in the scientific community is that the two will complete the merger, join and become a bigger black hole in tens to hundreds of millions of years from now.
Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/MIT/ C.Canizares, M.Nowak; Optical: NASA/STScI
These two galaxy clusters, known as CL 0542-4100 and CL 0848.6+4453 (left and right, respectively), were part of a sampling used by NASA to determine what fraction of galaxies have rapidly growing black holes (also known as active galactic nuclei, AGN). By studying the data, scientists were able to conclude, for the first time, that younger, more distant galaxy clusters have many more AGN than do older, nearby clusters. The four galaxy clusters in the distant sample, which includes the two we see here, represent what they looked like when the universe was only about 58 percent of its current age. Nearby galaxy cluster samples garnered in an earlier study were observed at about 82 percent of the universe’s current age. The more distant clusters, scientists discovered, contained about 20 times more AGN than those in the closer-in sample. This is because earlier in the history of the universe the older, more distant galaxies contained much more gas for star formation than do galaxy clusters from more recent times. Therefore, black holes formed more often and really thrived.
Image Credit: NASA/CXC/Ohio State Univ./J.Eastman et al.
This composite image comes from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and Hubble Space Telescope. It combines the deepest X-ray, optical and infrared views of the sky. Using these images, astronomers gathered the first hard evidence that, along the lines of what we learned in the last picture, black holes were common in the early universe. Astronomers were also able to show that very young black holes grew more aggressively than previously thought. Next, we'll learn a bit about backward-spinning black holes.
Image Credit: NASA/CXC/U. Hawaii/E. Treister et al; Infrared: NASA/STScI/UC Santa Cruz/G. Illingworth et al; Optical: NASA/STScI/S. Beckwith et al
Black holes are surrounded and nourished by disks of gas and dust, called accretion disks (the white swirls in the picture), and fierce jets fire straight out at either end. A black hole can spin either in the same direction as the disk, making it a prograde black hole, or it can spin against the flow –- a retrograde black hole. Scientists think "backward" black holes can shoot out more powerful jets because there's more space between the black hole and the inner edge of the orbiting disk. This gap provides more room for magnetic fields, which in turn fuel the jets.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist's conception shows one of the most primitive supermassive black holes known to man (the central black dot is the black hole), at the core of a young galaxy full of stars. The Spitzer Space Telescope has helped astronomers find two of these early objects, which date back to about 13 billion years ago. The enormous black holes look to scientists to be in the earliest stages of formation, earlier than any other black holes that have so far been observed. Interestingly, unlike all other supermassive black holes discovered to date, this primitive duo has no dust. As we just learned, gas swirls around black holes in what is called an accretion disk. Usually, the disk is surrounded by a dark, doughnut-like structure called a dust torus. But primitive black holes such as these have no dust tori because the early universe was too "clean": Not enough time had passed for molecules to group together into dust particles. Of course, as they grew and swallowed up increasing mass, researchers think they likely accumulated dusty rings.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This composite image is of the nearby starburst galaxy M82. The pullout section shows the central region of the galaxy and contains two bright X-ray sources that may be intermediate-mass black holes. They're termed "survivor" black holes, having avoided falling into the center of their galaxy. Researchers think they're the first strong evidence for more than one mid-sized black hole existing in a single galaxy.
Image Credit: Inset: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Tsinghua Univ./H. Feng et al.; Full-field: X-ray: NASA/CXC/JHU/D.Strickland; Optical: NASA/ESA/STScI/AURA/The Hubble Heritage Team; IR: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of AZ/C. Engelbracht
This Chandra X-Ray Observatory image shows our Milky Way galaxy, and the location of the black hole at its center -- known as Sagittarius A*, or Sgr A* for short -- is indicated with an arrow. In 2008, a team of Japanese astronomers, using NASA, Japanese and European X-ray satellites, discovered that the Milky Way’s central black hole let loose a powerful flare three centuries ago. The discovery helped resolve an old astronomical mystery: Why is the Milky Way’s black hole so quiet? SgrA* is gigantic, containing about four million times the mass of our sun. But the energy it radiates is billions of times weaker than the radiation given off by central black holes in other galaxies. "We have wondered why the Milky Way’s black hole appears to be a slumbering giant," said the Japanese team's leader, Tatsuya Inui, at the time. "But now we realize that the black hole was far more active in the past. Perhaps it’s just resting after a major outburst."
Image Credit: NASA/CXC/MIT/Frederick K. Baganoff et al.
This composite image of data from three different telescopes shows an ongoing collision between two galaxies. X-ray data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory is in purple, and the Spitzer Space Telescope's infrared data is shown in red. Meanwhile, optical data from the European Space Observatory's Very Large Telescope is colored red, green and blue. Next, see what a binary system with a black hole looks like when it's throwing off the highest wind speeds ever measured for a black hole of its size.
Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/M.Machacek; Optical: ESO/VLT; Infrared: NASA/JPL/Caltech
Here we see an artist's rendering of a binary system with a stellar-mass black hole called IGR J17091. The gravity of the black hole (left in the image) pulls gas away from the companion star (right). This gas forms an accretion disk around the black hole, and wind is driven off this disk. After making observations with the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the wind blowing off the disk around the black hole was calculated to be moving about 20 million miles per hour, or about three percent of the speed of light. That's almost 10 times faster than has ever been seen from a stellar-mass black hole, and it even matches some of the fastest winds generated by supermassive black holes (objects that are millions or billions of times more massive). Next up, we'll check out a newbie black hole in the cosmos.
Image Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
This image shows a supernova within the galaxy M100. It may contain the youngest known black hole in our neck of the cosmic woods. The supernova, called SN 1979C, is labeled at the bottom, just left of center. Its remnants resulted in a black hole that's calculated by scientists to be approximately 30 years old (in terms of what we can see of it right now as a "baby picture"; of course, in reality the light from the supernova itself has taken 50 million light years to reach us -- it's long ago out of its 30s). Scientists have the ability to watch this black hole in its infancy. In our next picture, we'll go ghost hunting.
Image Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/D.Patnaude et al, Optical: ESO/VLT, Infrared: NASA/JPL/Caltech
The diffuse blue object near the center of this image is thought by scientists to be a cosmic "ghost" of sorts. It was caused by a huge eruption from a supermassive black hole in a distant galaxy. This X-ray ghost, known as HDF 130 in NASA circles, is what's left behind after powerful radio waves from particles traveling away from the black hole have died off. HDF 130 is more than 10 billion light years away and existed at a time three billion years after the Big Bang, when galaxies and black holes were forming at a high rate. Near the center of the X-ray ghost is a radio point source indicating the presence of a growing supermassive black hole.
Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/IoA/A. Fabian et al.; Optical: SDSS; Radio: STFC/JBO/MERLIN
Here we see an image of the "Medusa" galaxy (also known as NGC 4194). The "hair" of Medusa reaches up above the center of the galaxy and was formed by a collision of galaxies. (The Medusa of mythology had hair made of snakes -- a slightly different look.) The bright blue spot found towards the left side of the hair is a black hole.
Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Iowa/P. Kaaret et al. Optical: NASA/ESA/STScI/Univ. of Iowa/P. Kaaret et al
This two-panel image shows galaxies used in a study of supermassive black holes. The galaxy on the left, called Abell 644, is in the center of a galaxy cluster that lies about 1.1 billion light years from Earth. On the right is an isolated, or "field," galaxy named SDSS J1021+131, which is about 900 million light years away. At the center of both of these galaxies is a growing, supermassive black hole -- called an active galactic nucleus (AGN), as we learned earlier -- which is pulling in large quantities of gas. Next, we'll look at a galaxy on the edge.
Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Northwestern Univ/D.Haggard et al. Optical: SDSS
This edge-on views shows us a galaxy called ESO 243-49, which is home to an intermediate-mass black hole that may have been pulled away from a dwarf galaxy. The black hole lies just above the galactic plane seen in the image. That's an unusual place for a black hole of its mass to exist, unless, again, it once was part of a smaller galaxy that was pulled apart (gravitationally) by ESO 243-49. A circle just off-center of the picture, to the left, right above the plane of the galaxy, pinpoints the X-ray source that denotes the black hole. ESO 243-49 is 290 million light years from Earth.
Image Credit: NASA; ESA; and S. Farrell, Sydney Institute for Astronomy, University of Sydney
Study of the data surrounding this galaxy gives scientists evidence of a recoiling black hole. Researchers think the black hole "kickback" was caused either by a kind of slingshot effect (produced in a triple-black-hole system) or from the effects of gravitational waves produced after two supermassive black holes merged. The galaxy's long tail suggests that a merger between galaxies has occurred relatively recently, only a few million years earlier.
Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/F.Civano et al. Optical: NASA/STScI
Image Credit: ration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss; X-ray: NASA/CXC/CfA/P.Plucinsky et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI/SDSU/J.Orosz et al.
The main portion of our final image is an artist's depiction of M33 X-7, a binary system in the nearby galaxy M33. In this system, a star about 70 times more massive than our sun (it's the large blue object in the main graphic) is revolving around a black hole. The black hole is nearly 16 times the sun's mass, which is a record for the kind of black hole that is created when a giant star collapses. (Other black holes at the centers of galaxies are far more massive, but this one tops the charts for a stellar-mass type of black hole.) The orange disk surrounding the black hole represents material fed by wind from the companion star, which itself has been pulled into orbit around the black hole. The inset box in this picture shows composite imagery from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope. They reveal young, massive stars around M33 X-7. The bright, blue spot is M33 X-7 itself.
Some physicists think that black holes might be wormholes to alternate universes. What do you know about about quantum jumping? Take our parallel universe quiz
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