Do you know how big a supermassive black hole is? It's so big… that the fastest moving thing in our universe, light traveling at 670 million mph, would take weeks to cross its shadow.
That is the case for the black hole known as TON 618 – a very distant black hole that NASA called "behemoth." Its mass is more than 60 billion suns, and any light from it takes more than 10 billion years to reach the Earth.
Astronomers use our sun's mass as a relative measure for huge things in the universe, such as black holes. According to NASA, the mass of a black hole is usually called a "solar mass." One solar mass is defined as the mass of our sun.
Supersized black holes
This is the universe’s way of supersizing. NASA produced a clip showing the relative sizes of the sun, planets and 10 supermassive black holes. Supermassive black holes reside in the center of most large galaxies, according to NASA, and range from 100,000 solar mass to billions.
"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 a statement. "How do they get so big? When galaxies collide, their central black holes eventually may merge together too."
A black hole is a vast mass in a very tiny volume. The black hole's name comes from the area just beneath the surface known as the event horizon, which traps light and anything else in its path forever with the structure’s intense gravity. This vast blackness contains all the matter of the black hole.
Images show the dark "shadow" surrounded by a bright ring of hot orbiting gas, according to NASA. The shadow is about twice the size of the black hole’s event horizon.
The smallest supermassive black hole in the animation is 1601+3113, a dwarf galaxy. The hole is the mass of 100,000 suns, but the matter is so tightly compressed that the black hole’s shadow is smaller than the sun.
Sagittarius A* (pronounced ay star) is the Milky Way Galaxy’s supermassive black hole. With a mass of 4.3 million suns, it’s a virtual lightweight compared to TON 618. Earth sits about 26,000 light-years away.
NASA says a few million Earths would fit in the space of Sgr A*. The black hole's diameter is about half the orbit of Mercury, the closest planet to the sun.
Put supermassive in perspective
For comparison, the sun sits just 0.00001581 light-years away from Earth or 8.2 light minutes. That means the sun’s light takes over 8 minutes to reach the surface of the Earth. One light year is about 5.88 trillion miles.
Earth is minuscule compared to the supermassive black holes. It would take 109 Earths to span the diameter of the sun, according to Space.com. The sun is more than 300,000 times heavier than Earth, according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
More research on the horizon
NASA is working with the European Space Agency to develop the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna or LISA mission, expected to launch in the next decade. LISA is made up of 3 spacecraft that shoot laser beams at each other, millions of miles away, to detect gravitational waves of merging black holes.