Scientists reveal largest map of the universe's active supermassive black holes ever created

This zoomed-in view of a portion of the all-sky survey from NASA Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer shows a collection of quasar candidates shown in yellow circles.
A zoomed-in view of quasars observed by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, which contributed data to the new map. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/STScI)

Researchers have unveiled a moving 3D map of supermassive black holes that covers the largest volume of our universe ever charted. 

The map is made up of 1.3 million quasars, which are cores of active galaxies powered by supermassive black holes and some of the brightest cosmic objects in existence. 

The light emitted by quasars comes from the supermassive black hole's gravitational pull on nearby clouds of gas, according to a statement released by the Simons Foundation in New York, which funds and supports research in science and mathematics. As friction heats up these clouds, they can form a bright, fast-moving disk that occasionally sprouts powerful jets of light.

The new map, called Quaia, is a catalog of quasars based on data collected by the European Space Agency's Gaia space telescope, among other sources. It appears in a new study published Monday (March 18) in The Astrophysical Journal

"This quasar catalog is different from all previous catalogs in that it gives us a three-dimensional map of the largest-ever volume of the universe," map co-creator David Hogg, an astrophysicist at New York University and senior research scientist at the Simons Foundation's Flatiron Institute, said in the statement.

"It isn't the catalog with the most quasars, and it isn't the catalog with the best-quality measurements of quasars, but it is the catalog with the largest total volume of the universe mapped," Hogg added.

Related: 'Baby quasars' spotted by James Webb telescope could transform our understanding of monster black holes

Researchers can learn a lot from quasars. Their evolution is intertwined with that of their host galaxies, so studying them gives scientists insight into the mysteries of how supermassive black holes grow and how massive galaxies form, according to the study.

Quasars are among the brightest objects in space, and can be observed all the way back near the beginning of the universe. (Image credit: ESA/Gaia/DPAC; Lucy Reading-Ikkanda/Simons Foundation; K. Storey-Fisher et al. 2024)

Galaxies with quasars are also surrounded by dark matter — an invisible substance that is thought to comprise 85% of the universe's total matter — which provides researchers with an opportunity to learn more about this enigmatic substance, including how it clumps together, according to the statement. The standard model of cosmology suggests that these clumps influence the distribution of regular matter across the universe.

To chart their map, the team combined data from Gaia's third data release from June 2022, which flagged more than 6 million quasar candidates, with data from NASA's Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

The Gaia space telescope has been mapping the Milky Way since it launched in 2013. While its mission is focused on our galaxy, the telescope also records objects outside of the Milky Way, including quasars, according to the statement. 

"We were able to make measurements of how matter clusters together in the early universe that are as precise as some of those from major international survey projects — which is quite remarkable given that we got our data as a 'bonus' from the Milky Way-focused Gaia project," said lead author Kate Storey-Fisher, a postdoctoral researcher at the Donostia International Physics Center, a research institution in Spain. 

Patrick Pester
Live Science Contributor

Patrick Pester is a freelance writer and previously a staff writer at Live Science. His background is in wildlife conservation and he has worked with endangered species around the world. Patrick holds a master's degree in international journalism from Cardiff University in the U.K.