A video recently shared by NASA showcases just how big supermassive black holes can get. Supermassive black holes have masses greater than 100,000 Suns, and NASA’s new visualization shows the extent to which our local star pales in comparison.
The smallest of the lot is the relatively puny J1601+3113, a dwarf galaxy with a black hole at its center. NASA said in a release that even though J1601+3113 has 100,000 solar masses, it is so compact that the black hole’s shadow is actually smaller than the Sun. The animation then expands outward, eventually getting to the absolutely enormous TON 618, which is 60 billion times the mass of the Sun. According to NASA, TON 618 is just one of a few extremely distant and incredibly massive black holes that scientists actually have direct measurements of.
“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 NASA’s release. “How do they get so big? When galaxies collide, their central black holes eventually may merge together too.”
Sagittarius A* also gets a featured moment in the animation. Sagittarius A* is the black hole at the center of the Milky Way and has a mass of 4.3 million Suns. The black hole’s shadow diameter is about half the width of Mercury’s orbit. Another favorite, M87, makes an appearance. M87 has a mass of 5.4 billion Suns and was the subject of the first-ever image of a black hole, released in 2019 by the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration.
NASA’s animation gives a sense of scale to these mysterious cosmic oddities that gobble up matter across the universe. In October, scientists published evidence of a black hole puking up a star seemingly years after consuming it. The researchers detected the black hole emitting material back into space in 2021 using an Earth-spanning observatory, but the black hole hadn’t consumed any matter in the three years prior. Last month, a team enhanced that famous image of M87*, using machine learning to reveal more detail about the material surrounding the black hole.