How big is a 'supermassive' black hole? New NASA visualization shows the insane scale

Welcome to This Week in Outer Space, where you’ll find a roundup of the best space coverage from Yahoo News and our partners from the past week or so. This week we’re going deep on exactly how big celestial objects like supermassive black holes really are. While we might be able to do the math on paper, human brains aren’t wired to comprehend scales billions and trillions of times larger than ourselves. But the latest project from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab comes close to putting cosmic scale in perspective.

Video transcript


- Getting a sense of scale can be a funny thing when it comes to understanding just how vast our universe really is. On paper, sure, we can do the math. But human brains just aren't wired to fully comprehend the orders of magnitude to go from 100 to 1,000 to millions, billions, and trillions of times greater than measures we understand.

Take seconds, for example. 10 seconds, no problem. You can count that on your hands. Even 100 seconds is pretty easy. It's less than two minutes, and you can count that in your head. 1,000 seconds, a little harder, just under 17 minutes. Then a million seconds, that's just under 12 days, or about twice as long as Anthony Scaramucci was the White House communications director.

A billion seconds though, that's approximately 31 years, eight months, and 19 days, more than the entire time Shailene Woodley of "Divergent" and "Big Little Lies" fame has been on the planet. In a trillion seconds, that's more than six times all of recorded human history.

So wait, what does any of this have to do with space? Well, when we're talking about things that are trillions of miles away and billions of times the size of Earth, at a certain point, the numbers alone start to lose meaning without some kind of visual comparison, although doing that is easier said than done.

Even in our own solar system, scale is difficult to visualize. You can either look at the distance between planets and the sun or their relative sizes. You can't really do both at the same time without losing something. But this week, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab came out with a video that attempts to show just how ginormous something like a supermassive black hole really is, starting with the sun then pulling back to show the relative size of known black holes, from the relatively small to the one at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, then growing larger and larger until landing on the largest Black hole ever discovered, TON 618, which is 66 billion times the mass of the sun. And if you play it back real fast, it gives you at least a sense of just how small our pale blue dot really is.

And that's all the time we've got for this week. We'll be back next weekend with an all new "This Week in Outer Space."