Believe it or not, that’s not a star field you’re looking at. Researchers have used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to produce an X-ray image of space (the deepest-ever X-ray, in fact) that has uncovered an abundance of supermassive black holes — they represent 70 percent of the objects in the picture above. Many of these holes would normally be undetectable, especially distant ones from the early universe, and it took 11.5 weeks of total observation time to spot them all. Think of it as a very, very long exposure photo, just for X-ray emissions.
The wealth of data is already providing clues not just to the history of black holes, but the universe itself. It suggests that supermassive black holes may be seeded with masses 10,000 to 100,000 times those of our Sun, instead of “just” 100 times. That would help explain why these holes can grow so large at a relatively quick pace. Moreover, X-rays from very distant galaxies (about 12.5 billion light years away) help explain the developments of both supermassive and stellar-mass black holes when the universe was getting started.
There’s still a lot of work to be done. Scientists want to conduct further studies to explain how supermassive holes grow, and the James Webb Space Telescope will be crucial to catching X-rays from older and more distant holes. Nonetheless, the data collected here could pay dividends for a long time to come.