Astronomers Create Largest 3D Map of the Universe Using Bright Black Holes

Astronomers have created the largest-ever three-dimensional map of the universe, charting the locations of about 1.3 million active supermassive black holes, known as quasars. These gas-gobbling black holes, found at the centers of galaxies, are some of the brightest objects in the universe.

The map, created using data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia space telescope, spans an immense volume of space and time. The furthest quasars captured in the map existed when the universe was only 1.5 billion years old, compared to its current age of 13.7 billion years.

“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,” says map co-creator David Hogg, a senior research scientist at the Flatiron Institute’s Center for Computational Astrophysics in New York City and a professor of physics and data science at New York University.

The scientists combined data from Gaia, NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to create the map. By studying the locations of quasars and their host galaxies, astronomers can learn more about the mysterious dark matter that surrounds them and how the universe has expanded over time.

“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,” says lead author Kate Storey-Fisher, a postdoctoral researcher at the Donostia International Physics Center in Spain.

The team also created a map showing where dust, stars, and other nuisances might block our view of certain quasars, which is crucial for interpreting the quasar map accurately.

“This quasar catalog is a great example of how productive astronomical projects are,” says Hogg. “Gaia was designed to measure stars in our own galaxy, but it also found millions of quasars at the same time, which give us a map of the entire universe.”


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