They are distant, massive and as mysterious as they are infinite.
Gluttonous black holes are what stars become after they die and collapse in on themselves, their matter and energy compressed so tightly that not even light can escape. They only become evident when they are feasting on hapless stars, planets and any other interstellar material that gets sucked into their orbit.
Now, a NASA mission designed specifically to spot supermassive black holes has discovered not one, but 10 of them, behemoths that are gobbling up galaxies billions of light-years away. As with most great discoveries, it happened while the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (nicknamed NuSTAR) was examining something else.
"We found the black holes serendipitously," said David Alexander, a NuSTAR team member based in the Department of Physics at Durham University in England who lead a study published in the Astrophysical Journal in August, in a statement. "We were looking at known targets and spotted the black holes in the background of the images."
The supermassive black holes are gargantuan versions of garden-variety black holes such as the one at the center of our very own Milky Way galaxy. Among the many things astronomers wish to find out via NuStar is how many black holes of all sizes the universe contains.
The farthest and by far biggest black hole known to date is 10 billion times the mass of the sun and 10,000 times the mass of the supermassive black hole that resides at the center of the Milky Way, according to the website WorldScience.com and the Royal Astronomical Society. It’s 11 billion years away, WorldScienc.com said. There may be as many as 400 such monsters just in our observable universe.
NuStar, NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory explained in the statement, is the first-ever telescope capable of focusing the highest-energy X-ray light enough to cut through the dense dust clouds that normally veil these holes, and thus create detailed pictures. The result is a tantalizing glimpse into infinity. Where do black holes lead? Nobody knows.
Below, an artist's depiction from NASA.