If you thought the fictional black hole at the heart of Interstellar was scary, just wait until you get a load of this real-life beast.
Researchers at Peking University have discovered a supermassive black hole that is estimated to be 12 billion times more massive than our own sun. That is one heck of a big space-time warp, and is one of the biggest ever recorded. The team made the whopping discovery by studying data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the Two Micron All-Sky Survey and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer.
What makes the find even more interesting is that it represents one of the largest black holes ever discovered in the early universe. It’s estimated to exist 12.8 billion light-years away from Earth, so the light we’re seeing is from 900 million years after the Big Bang (which happened 13.8 billion years ago). In layman’s terms: The black hole was huge even when it was fairly young, in cosmic terms.
The black hole’s massive size at the early in its existence is uncommon, as Max Planck Institute astronomer Bram Venemans explained in a commentary on the find via Popular Science:
“People assume there’s a fast growth rate for these black holes, but the energy released by the black hole will often stop the flow of new material. Therefore it doesn’t grow that fast over the course of its lifetime. But this black hole must have grown close to a maximum rate for most of its lifetime without the growth being stopped by energy output … It’s still in the limits of what’s possible, it’s just surprising that it happened so efficiently over such a long time.”
The team analyzed the luminosity surrounding the supermassive black hole to determine its size. That luminosity is created by the gases and other materials being sucked into the black hole, which are heated by that process and give off a ton of thermal energy and light. That's what the research team was able to spot, all those billions of light-years away.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering — that 12.8 billion light-years is far enough away that we shouldn’t ever have to worry about this behemoth destroying our solar system. So, yeah, no sweat.