What in the Universe: Black Holes

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What are the brilliant points of light in this space telescope image? 

Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach in collaboration with NASA’s Universe of Learning partners: Caltech/IPAC, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and Sonoma State University. 

  • NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) mission image of the COSMOS (Cosmic Evolution Survey) field: NASA/JPL-Caltech 
  • Illustration of a black hole: NASA/Swift/Aurore Simonnet, Sonoma State University
  • Animation of a black hole: ESO/M. Kornmesser 

Written by Claire Blome 
Designed by Dani Player 
Editorial and design input from Dr. Christopher Britt, Margaret W. Carruthers, Dr. Quyen Hart, Leah Ramsay, and Timothy Rhue II
Music courtesy of Music for Non-Profits


 Red square against starry sky. Icons, star, galaxy, constellation, asteroid, solar system. Text, what in the universe? 

Image, sky with small dots of green, yellow, blue, and red. 

Text, What are these brilliant points of light? A., light bent by galaxies, B., light emitted by stars, C., light reflected by planets, D., light generated around black holes. 

D is highlighted. 

Black hole X-ray emissions. Sextans constellation, cosmos field. Illustration of a black hole. 

A black hole's gravity is so strong that light cannot escape, but the light emitted by objects falling in can be detected. 

The points of light in the image at left are x-rays that are emitted by those infalling materials, including gas, dust, and nearby stars. 

The red and green dots indicate lower energy x-ray emissions, and blue denotes the highest energy emissions. 

Each point of light is too far away to resolve the black hole itself clearly, which is why we can't see the hole in the center. 

Each of the supermassive black holes in this image lies at the center of a galaxy. 

Black holes range in mass. Stellar black holes that form when massive stars die are 5 to 100 times the mass our sun. 

Supermassive black holes have a mass of 1 million or more suns and lie at the center of their host galaxies. 

No matter how massive they are, all supermassive black holes are significantly smaller than the galaxies they call home.