If black holes are so bad at growing, how do we get supermassive black holes?

If supermassive black holes are so bad at feeding from the stars around them, how did they get so big?
 This illustration shows a glowing stream of material from a star, disrupted as it was being devoured by a supermassive black hole. The feeding black hole is surrounded by a ring of dust.   Image credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech

This illustration shows a glowing stream of material from a star, disrupted as it was being devoured by a supermassive black hole. The feeding black hole is surrounded by a ring of dust. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is such a good question that the answer is not particularly settled yet - we have some ideas for how some supermassive black holes may have gotten so large, but it’s not clear that the explanations we’ve come up with so far hold true for all supermassive black holes.

So a few definitions before we launch into our ideas - by and large, all massive galaxies have a gigantic black hole at their centers. To distinguish these central black holes from the type of black hole created when a single, massive star ends its life, we named the big ones “supermassive”. The black holes created from single stars are less entertainingly named “stellar-mass black holes”.

 This artist concept of the local galaxy Arp 220, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope,  shows the bright core of the galaxy, paired with an overlaid artist's impression of jets emanating from it, to indicate that the central black hole's activity is intensifying.  Image Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech

This artist concept of the local galaxy Arp 220, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope,  shows the bright core of the galaxy, paired with an overlaid artist's impression of jets emanating from it, to indicate that the central black hole's activity is intensifying. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Black holes of all sizes are extremely inefficient at gathering new material to themselves. Rather than absorbing nearby material in one fell swoop, the material is more often than not pulled into a tight disk of extremely hot material, or flung away from the black hole entirely, sometimes at relativistic speeds. For all black holes have a reputation of being cosmic garbage disposals, if you had a garbage disposal this terrible in your own kitchen, after the first time it blasted superheated onion bits on your ceiling you’d call a professional to have it removed ASAP.

So it is an eminently reasonable question - how do you make a black hole that’s thousands of times larger than the ones that are made by stars, when they’re exceptionally bad at growth? This question is made more complicated because right now, getting a star to explode in a supernova, and the remnant collapsing down into a black hole is the most robust theoretical model we have to make a black hole, so you have to somehow bridge the gap between something that contains a few times the mass of the Sun and something that contains thousands of times the mass of the Sun, while that thing steadfastly refuses to grow rapidly by accreting new material onto itself.

What can we do? Well, we can either 1) start larger, or 2) grow differently. If you start larger, then you have the benefit of not having to grow by a factor of several thousand but only by a couple. This method means you have to start with “seed black holes” very early in the universe. You can do this in one of two ways. First is the direct collapse model - the thinking goes that it might have been possible, very early in the universe for enough gas to collect together that its gravity would just collapse all the way down to a black hole, skipping the star phase entirely. The second method is effectively to go through a star first, but to go through a very, very large star - something much larger than the Universe makes nowadays, which would burn through its hydrogen much faster, and would make a larger black hole as a remnant.

 Artist's illustration of supermassive black hole pair.Image credit:  NASA/CXC/A.Hobart

Artist's illustration of supermassive black hole pair.Image credit: NASA/CXC/A.Hobart

What about growing differently? It’s possible that instead of growing by slurping tiny fractions of gas and dust from its surroundings, the black holes grow by absorbing other black holes. This raises a whole string of other questions, like “are there even enough black holes around for that to work?”. We know that there should be times when galaxies gain a second supermassive black hole - during galaxy collisions. The remnant of the two galaxies should have two black holes which sink together, immediately doubling their mass. But it’s unclear if you can guarantee that enough galaxies will smash together enough times for this to work for all the galaxies we see, especially since not all galaxies are expected to merge with another galaxy the same number of times.

There’s no reason the answer will wind up being one or the other - some combination is likely to be in play. If you can start with a larger seed in the early Universe, you can grow more easily through a combination of colliding with the supermassive black holes in other galaxies, and by gathering gas inefficiently to themselves.


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What is the biggest known planet in the Universe?

What is the biggest known planet in the Universe?
 VLT NACO image, taken in the Ks-band, of GQ Lupi. The feeble point of light to the right of the star is the newly found cold companion. It is 250 times fainter than the star itself and it located 0.73 arcsecond west. At the distance of GQ Lupi, this corresponds to a distance of roughly 100 astronomical units. North is up and East is to the left.   Credit:    ESO

VLT NACO image, taken in the Ks-band, of GQ Lupi. The feeble point of light to the right of the star is the newly found cold companion. It is 250 times fainter than the star itself and it located 0.73 arcsecond west. At the distance of GQ Lupi, this corresponds to a distance of roughly 100 astronomical units. North is up and East is to the left. Credit: ESO

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Our list of known planets and exoplanets unfortunately doesn’t extend much beyond our own Milky Way galaxy - to spot a planet, you need to be able to measure the light from an individual star and monitor it over time. You’re looking either for tiny flickers in the amount of light you receive, as a planet happens to pass in front of the star you’re watching, or you’re looking for there to be a little Doppler shift in the color of the star’s light, as the planets tug it slightly off center as they orbit.  Known by the names of the transit method and the Doppler shift method respectively, both of these require really careful observations over a significant amount of time, without the light from the star mixing with the light from other stars. This limits us pretty well to the stars within or surrounding our Milky Way.

Because the measurements required to spot planets must be so precise, generally the telescopes we send out to do these measurements only look at a small patch of the sky. So while I can give you our current high scoring planets, there’s no guarantee these will remain the all-time bests, if we point our telescopes in a new direction.

There is one fundamental limitation to how massive a planet can get - if you pack too much material into a planet, it will start to fuse elements in its core, and it formally becomes a star instead of a planet. This transition happens when the object is somewhere in the range of 13 to 80 times the mass of Jupiter, and is the point at which we typically start calling objects a brown dwarf star, orbiting another star, instead of a planet. The list of biggest planets can also change if we get better measurements. It's possible to learn that what we thought was a planet should really be called a brown dwarf, which then bumps that object off the list of biggest planets, and onto the list of known brown dwarfs.

 This artist's conception illustrates what a "Y dwarf" might look like. Y dwarfs are the coldest star-like bodies known, with temperatures that can be even cooler than the human body. Image credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech

This artist's conception illustrates what a "Y dwarf" might look like. Y dwarfs are the coldest star-like bodies known, with temperatures that can be even cooler than the human body. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

However, you can still have very large, fluffy planets, well before they get to this boundary of being a star. Most of the ones we know about are Jupiter like in style - massive, gaseous planets, orbiting distant stars. The easiest to find are hot Jupters - exoplanets which are not only bigger than Jupiter, they’re much closer into their star than Jupiter is to our Sun. Currently, the majority of the biggest, fluffiest planets are about twice the radius of Jupiter. Considering that you could stack 22 and a half Earths edge to edge to match the width of Jupiter, you’re looking at a planet so large, you could line up 45 Earths behind it, and not see any of them. These planets have the very pronounceable names of ROXs 42Bb, which is estimated to be about 2.5 times the size of Jupiter, or Kepler-13 Ab, which sits around 2.2 times the size of Jupiter.

There are some larger ones, but these have preliminary estimates of their size, and may yet turn out to be brown dwarfs. The current record holder is a planet orbiting a star known as GQ Lupi, and estimates place it at somewhere around 4 times larger than Jupiter. This particular object is so large that our theoretical models of how it has formed are not particularly happy, and so the estimates on its size and mass are both pretty hazy. It is likely to remain a planet, but if it turns out that its mass is on the high end of our current estimates, it could wind up on a brown dwarf list. (This object is also extremely young, and will change and compress as it evolves.)

 Artist's impression of the simultaneous stellar eclipse and planetary transit events on Kepler-1647.  Credits: Lynette Cook

Artist's impression of the simultaneous stellar eclipse and planetary transit events on Kepler-1647. Credits: Lynette Cook

These big fluffy planets are orbiting your default solar system - one with a single star, around which all the planets orbit.  If you have two stars (which isn’t that uncommon), it seems to be much harder to build very large planets. The largest planet known to circle two stars at once was only confirmed in 2016, and is almost identical to Jupiter in size. At “only” 22.5 Earths in size, it orbits its parent star once every three years.


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If we can't build a magnetic bubble for a spacecraft, how about a magnetic tunnel?

If it is impractical to provide an artificial magnetosphere on the ship which would travel to Mars (due to cosmic ray cascades in the material of the ship), what about generating the magnetic fields externally and projecting them into space at a series of waypoints? Or would the distance involved (225 million miles) be too great?
 Our planet's magnetic field changes shape constantly due to strong winds from the sun. Image credit:  NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio

Our planet's magnetic field changes shape constantly due to strong winds from the sun. Image credit: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio

A little while ago we covered some of the main radiation based difficulties of sending people to Mars, and while the solar wind is generally not so troublesome, cosmic rays, which we are shielded from here on Earth, are both more dangerous and much harder to redirect or stop.

Generally we want the outer walls of our spacecraft to be pretty durable, both for airtightness, protection against space junk, and to help protect against the solar wind, which can be stopped by a pretty reasonable amount of shielding. However, as you build up your shield, cosmic rays will start to play a nastier role. While you certainly don’t want a cosmic ray to be able to pass straight through your spacecraft and hit your astronaut unhindered (they’re very energetic particles, the sort that bodies deal very badly with), when a cosmic ray hits a dense object like a wall, it doesn’t just bounce back the way it came from.

 Standard spacecraft shielding, integrated into hull design, is strong protection from most solar radiation, but defeats this purpose with high-energy cosmic rays it simply splits into deadly showers of secondary particles. Image credit: NASA

Standard spacecraft shielding, integrated into hull design, is strong protection from most solar radiation, but defeats this purpose with high-energy cosmic rays it simply splits into deadly showers of secondary particles. Image credit: NASA

It creates a radiation cascade instead; what was one particle is now two, four, sixteen, and beyond, very rapidly, as the particle interacts with the dense material of the spacecraft wall. Sixteen slightly lower energy particles is mathematically worse than one high energy one, and a serious point of concern once we get out of the Earth’s magnetic shielding. So a very reasonable response is to ask if we can bring along our own magnetic shielding, to prevent the high energy cosmic rays from hitting the wall of the spacecraft in the first place. Theoretically, this should reduce the amount of radiation inside the spacecraft cabin, since it would reduce the number of cosmic rays that can make it all the way to the spacecraft shield. The main reason this is impractical right now is simply a logistical one - we don’t have a good way to build a generator for a sufficiently strong magnetic field which is also lightweight enough not to be hard to launch.

Setting up waystations would be an interesting way of approaching the same challenge. If there were a fixed orbital path between the Earth and Mars, and we could build a magnetic tube between the two planets, you could do away with the need to have an onboard magnetic bubble. Because you’re not trying to launch them on the spacecraft, you wouldn’t need to worry about the weight as much, but the magnetic field you’d have to generate would need to be much larger, to guarantee that the spacecraft (within errors) would definitely travel safely through the buffered region. The distances involved here are vast, and so setting up a series of waypoints would almost definitely be unfavorable, at least from an energy consumption perspective. There’s also the question of fueling those waypoints. Are they solar powered? Fission powered? What happens if their solar panels break down or they run out of energy? They’d also have to be able to correct their own orbits in order to be in the right places for the protection of the traversing spacecraft, and at this point we’re looking at a giant electromagnet with rockets, which is a great sounding device to have, but practically speaking, it’s a more powerful version of what we’d like to have on the spacecraft in the first place, and if we can get by with one device instead of several hundred, one is probably better.


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Why do we always think of North as up?

Hi! It might be a dumb question but it’s been in my mind for a while. We are convinced that North is up and South is down because that’s the way maps have been for many many years, but we don’t really know which way is actually up, it could be east or northwest, etc, right? Because there isn’t a real orientation/position in space, there’s no fixed up or down, but... doesn’t the way the Earth rotate determine in a way which way is up? How do those two things related to each other? Or is there no connection at all? Thank you!
 "The Blue Marble" is a famous photograph of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft en route to the Moon at a distance of about 29,000 kilometres (18,000 mi). It shows Africa, Antarctica, and the Arabian Peninsula. In this version, it has been flipped upside down, with South at the top of the image. Image credit:  NASA

"The Blue Marble" is a famous photograph of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft en route to the Moon at a distance of about 29,000 kilometres (18,000 mi). It shows Africa, Antarctica, and the Arabian Peninsula. In this version, it has been flipped upside down, with South at the top of the image. Image credit: NASA

You’re right that the way we draw our maps with North pointing up and South pointing down is largely arbitrary, and indeed there are a number of maps with the Southerly direction at the top rather than at the bottom, and they’re good fun to look at However, there are good reasons to say that a Northerly or Southerly direction should be “up”, and these reasons extend beyond just the rotation of the Earth.

The rotation of the Earth is a good starting place, though - the rotation axis of the Earth goes more or less through the North and South magnetic poles of the Earth. The magnetic North & South poles wander a little, so some years they’re closer to the rotation axis than others. Fixing the rotation of the Earth as a cardinal direction makes good sense, and is what we’ve done - East and West point 90 degrees from North and South.

There’s one more reason to put North as up, and it’s a physics convention. Most of the time, when we’re talking about rotation, we say that the direction of the rotation axis is actually just in one direction, rather than having to indicate both North and South. If we do this, it allows us to encode both the axis of rotation, and the direction of rotation at the same time. The way we determine which of North or South should be “the direction”, we use what’s called the “right hand rule”. You curl your fingers in the direction of rotation, and your thumb points in the direction of the rotation axis. In the Earth’s case, we rotate towards the East, so your thumb will point in the direction of North.

 A drawing of the solar system shows Pluto's tilted orbit. Pluto's orbital path angles 17 degrees above the line, or plane, where the eight planets orbit. Credits:  NASA

A drawing of the solar system shows Pluto's tilted orbit. Pluto's orbital path angles 17 degrees above the line, or plane, where the eight planets orbit. Credits: NASA

However, if you’re thinking of orientations beyond just the Earth’s own rotation, while it’s true that there’s no way to set an entirely objective zero point from which to measure other positions, and a sphere doesn’t have much intrinsic orientation to it, we can still do relative positions pretty well. And on the scale of our solar system, we have a pretty solid alignment going on. All the major planets in our solar system trace oval paths around the Sun as they go about their respective years. Not only do they orbit around the Sun in the same direction, they all tend to point their rotation axes in the same direction (notable exceptions here are Venus and Uranus). On top of all that, the ovals are almost perfectly aligned in a flat plane. If we take our same physics convention and use the rotation of the planets around the Sun to tell us which direction we’re going to point up, our Planet Earth based North is more or less pointing in the right direction. Our planet’s spin is not perfectly aligned with the “up” out of the solar system, but tilted by 23 degrees, a feature of our planet responsible for our seasons. This tilt is why many globes are set at an angle - they’re mimicking the tilt of our planet relative to the “up” defined by our solar system.

So the North is up convention is partially mapmakers, partially the spin of our Earth, and partially physics notation, but there are definite ties between all of them.


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