This animation shows just how big supermassive black holes can get

  • Black holes are the densest objects in the universe, which gives them a powerful gravitational pull on the space around them.
  • They can be millions of times larger than suns and planets, or as small as a city.
  • Using just gravity, black holes can rip entire planets and stars apart – but how powerful they are depends on how much mass is inside.
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Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: The cosmos can be a dangerous place. Take black holes, for example. They’re some of the most violent objects in our universe, powerful enough to rip entire stars to pieces.

Their secret weapon is gravity. You see, the more mass you can shrink into a small space, the stronger your gravitational force will become. To make Earth into a black hole, for instance, you’d have to shrink it to less than an inch across.

But real black holes are much larger than that and pack way more mass than Earth. Here’s just how big black holes can really get.

There are three common types of black holes. The smallest are stellar black holes, which form after a giant star explodes and collapses in on itself, like this one, which measures about 40 miles across, roughly three times the length of Manhattan. But in that small space is enough mass to equal 11 of our suns.

In another galaxy, called M33, there’s a black hole that is 58 miles across and packs as much mass as 15.7 suns inside.

Up next are the intermediate-mass black holes, like this one. At 1,460 miles across, it’s nearly large enough to stretch from Florida to Maine and, according to some calculations, contains the mass of 400 suns.

At this point, black holes start to get pretty big compared to Earth, but it’s still nothing when you consider the sheer mass they carry. Take this black hole, for example. It’s nearly twice the size of Jupiter, spanning a region about 172,000 miles wide, but inside is as much mass as 47,000 suns.

But these black holes are nothing compared to supermassive black holes, like Sagittarius A*, which lives at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. It covers a region about 14.6 million miles in diameter. That’s roughly 168 Jupiters across, and inside is the same amount of mass as 4 million suns combined. Now that may sound big, but Sagittarius A* is small compared to other supermassive black holes.

Take the one at the center of our neighbor the Andromeda galaxy, which has a diameter of 516 million miles, larger than Jupiter’s orbit, and contains enough mass to equal that of 140 million suns. We’re finally getting to some of the largest black holes in the universe, and yet we haven’t reached one that surpasses the size of our solar system.

So let’s look at the supermassive black hole at the center of the Sombrero galaxy. It measures 2 billion miles across, so it would stretch further than Uranus’ orbit, and it has about the same mass as 660 million suns.

And the supermassive black hole at the center of Messier 87 is so huge that astronomers could see it from 55 million light-years away. It’s 24 billion miles across and contains the same mass as 6 1/2 billion suns. But this supermassive black hole, as large as it is, could still fit within our solar system with plenty of room to spare.

So we have to look at one of the most massive of all supermassive black holes. It has a diameter of about 78 billion miles. For perspective, that’s about 40% the size of our solar system, according to some estimates. And it’s estimated to be about 21 billion times the mass of our sun.

So there you have it, black holes can be millions of times larger than suns and planets or as small as a city. It all depends on how much mass is inside. Turns out, when it comes to the cosmos, size isn’t the only thing that matters.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in May 2019.

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Watch 2 supermassive black holes dance around each other in a mesmerizing NASA animation

black hole
A pair of orbiting black holes millions of times the Sun’s mass. The black hole represented in blue has less mass.

At the heart of every galaxy lies a black hole, where gravity is so strong that nothing can escape its boundary. Sometimes when two galaxies merge, their black holes get caught in lock-step, perpetually circling each other in an interstellar tango.

A new animation from NASA reveals what it might look like if you filmed a pair of orbiting supermassive black holes, known as a binary system, in action.

In the visualization, the black holes are marked by different colors. The orange one is 200 million times more massive than the sun. Its blue companion weighs about half that much. Both are surrounded by glowing rings of hot gas and space debris, known as an accretion disk.

When one black hole moves in front of the other, its strong gravity distorts the light from its partner’s accretion disk.

As a result, the black hole in the background looks like it’s warping into pieces that ooze around the other – a bit like a funhouse mirror.

Once the black holes pass by each other, those distorted pieces seem to flow back together.

Black holes look different depending on your vantage point

The black holes appear smaller as they move closer to the viewer and larger as they move farther into the background, according to Jeremy Schnittman, a NASA astrophysicist who created the new animation.

Using a cluster of supercomputers, Schnittman was able to calculate, frame-by-frame, how light from both accretion disks would bend as the two black holes danced around each other. Normally, those calculations would have taken a decade on a modern desktop computer, but Schnittman completed them in roughly one day.

His visualization shows that black hole components change in appearance depending on how you look at them.

When viewed from above or below, each black hole’s accretion disk looks like a near-perfect circle, with a tiny image of its partner reflected near the center.

“Zooming into each black hole reveals multiple, increasingly distorted images of its partner,” Schnittman said in a statement.

black hole
An animation of a black hole as viewed from above or below.

From a side-on view, however, the accretion disk looks like a rainbow of fire slithering around the black hole’s center. That rainbow gets warped when the black holes pass by each other.

From this vantage point, the accretion disk appears brighter on one side than the other. As a black hole spins, the cloud of gas and debris orbiting it also spins. So the disk material moving toward our eyes would seem brighter than the material moving away – a bit like the beacon of a lighthouse.

NASA black hole still image
An animation of a black hole as viewed from the side.

According to Schnittman, a pair of black holes like the ones depicted in the new animation will eventually merge into one gargantuan black hole – but not before dancing around each other for a long time.

“These are the kinds of black hole binary systems where we think both members could maintain accretion disks lasting millions of years,” he said.

Aria Bendix contributed reporting to this story.

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A mesmerizing photo shows powerful magnetic fields swirling around a black hole

EHT black hole magnetic fields
A view of the M87 supermassive black hole in polarized light.

  • Scientists recently captured a black hole’s powerful magnetic fields on camera.
  • The image shows that these magnetic fields are strong enough to keep some matter from falling in.
  • Matter that doesn’t get sucked in gets launched back into space in the form of jets.
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When scientists published the first photo of a black hole in 2019, the image looked more like a smudge than a detailed snapshot. But a new photo released Wednesday offers a sharper view of the powerful magnetic fields that loop around the black hole’s inner edge.

Since 2009, scientists from the international Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration have been observing the black hole at the center of the super-giant Messier 87 (M87) galaxy, which is about 54 million light-years from Earth.

Most matter that gets close to the edge of a black hole gets sucked into the event horizon – the boundary after which the black hole’s gravity is so strong that anything, including light, gets devoured. But some particles manage to escape the abyss and instead get launched into space in the form of jets that extend far beyond the galaxy’s edge.

Before their new research was published on Wednesday, the EHT scientists knew that magnetic fields played some role in ejecting matter from this black hole and others like it.

“The open question from the first image [in 2019] was exactly what the structure of those magnetic fields were and how strong they are,” Andrew Chael, a NASA Hubble Fellow at the Princeton Center for Theoretical Science, told Insider.

After observing the new image, the scientists discovered that the magnetic fields surrounding M87’s black hole are actually quite strong – around 2 to 50 times stronger than Earth’s magnetic field.

“They sort of build up onto the black hole and push back against the gas that’s falling in,” Chael said. “Some of the gas falls in, but some of it is accelerated by the magnetic fields out to really large distances.”

m87 galaxy
Messier 87 as seen through a telescope.

Clues from light

Chael said he was pleasantly surprised by the level of detail revealed in the new photo.

“One of the things we all expected from the first images was that it might be really hard to interpret them,” he said.

His team was able to analyze the black hole’s magnetic fields because of the light emitted by the black hole’s accretion disk, or outer ring of hot matter. When this matter encounters a strong magnetic field, the light waves become polarized – meaning they prefer to travel in a certain direction.

Polarized light is therefore a glaring indicator that magnetic fields are present. By observing the direction of this light in their images, the EHT scientists were able to map the magnetic field lines – and ultimately estimate their strength.

Their new research marks the first time that astronomers have been able to measure polarization this close to the edge of a black hole.

More telescopes will help with future black-hole investigations

black hole jet
M87’s jet in polarized light.

The EHT scientists used a global network of eight telescopes to capture their first image of M87’s black hole. Chael said the group is adding more telescopes to its lineup in hopes of eventually collecting video.

Such footage may reveal the black hole’s motion as it spews particles into space.

“As it launches material out into this jet, can we see the dynamics of what’s happening?” Chael said. “Can we trace movies of material as it’s ejected along these field lines? That’s one of the big goals in the coming years.”

At the very least, scientists should be able to get a clearer picture of the black hole’s large jet, which spans several thousand light-years. Right now, Chael said, the jet appears dim in images as it gets further away from the black hole.

“Something we’d really like to be able to do is see the base of the jet in the image,” Chael said. “If we had a few more telescopes in our array, we should be able to see that.”

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