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SciShow Space takes you to a distant, ancient black hole that … really shouldn’t be, and psyches you up for the Dawn spacecraft’s final approach to Ceres!

Ceres Plumes Artwork Courtesy of Ron Miller/Black Cat Studios:
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Space is... an extreme sort of place.    So astrophysicists tend to study the biggest, most explode-y kind of science you can imagine.   Like, a neutron star so dense that a single teaspoon of it weighs as much as a mountain? Which is pretty awesome.   Or a cluster of galaxies so massive that it bends time?   Yeah, that's pretty cool too.   But sometimes, researchers discover something so extreme that even they are confounded by it.   That’s what happened last week when a team of researchers from China and the United States announced the discovery of a truly supermassive black hole.   The team estimates that this black hole is 12 billion times as massive as the sun -- that’s 3000 times as big as the black hole in the center of the Milky Way.   On the whole, a discovery like this wouldn’t be all that big a deal. Sure, it’s big for a black hole, but we’ve found others around that size.   What really has researchers puzzled is that this black hole reached its enormous size when the universe was only 900 million years old -- practically in its infancy.   By measuring the shift in wavelengths of light coming from around this black hole, the researchers could tell how fast it’s moving away from us, and from there, figure out how old it is.   And the light they saw being sucked into this black hole … was over 12.8 billion years old.   Other black holes we’ve found around this age are, at most, 3 billion times as massive as the sun.    So this new thing … does not make sense.   Because, black holes form from the collapsed cores of dead stars. And those that form at the center of galaxies, like this one, grow as they absorb more gas.   So, if a black hole this huge showed up only nine hundred million years after the big bang, it must have absorbed matter way faster than we ever thought possible.   So now, physicists are trying to figure out what rules of the universe allowed this black hole to become so huge so fast.    One explanation is that a few smaller black holes merged together when their galaxies collided. But that seems unlikely, because black holes have to be roughly the same mass in order to combine.   Another option is that the matter that this black hole was ingesting billions of years ago was just denser than we thought things were back then.   So thanks, super giant black hole, for keeping us guessing about the universe and blowing our minds.   Now, while some scientists are puzzling over the early universe, NASA’s Dawn probe is busy investigating the early solar system.   By the time you see this, Dawn will probably be carrying out humanity’s first-ever rendezvous with Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt that also happens to be the biggest thing between Mars and Jupiter.   The probe is on a quest to find out more about Ceres’ geological activity, which will help us figure out how the dwarf planet formed, and might even teach us something about Earth’s early years.    The objects flying around in the asteroid belt are remnants from when the planets formed, and they were knocked so far off-kilter by Jupiter’s gravitational field that they didn’t have a chance to combine into planets.   But these failed planetary chunks are more than just really big, really old rocks.   Vesta, for example, an asteroid that Dawn visited in 2011, turned out to have a crust, a mantle, and an iron core -- kinda like Earth.    And astronomers expect Ceres to be a totally different story.    Because we already know that Ceres has lots of water -- probably in a 62-kilometer-deep coating on its rocky core.   But what form that water takes is an open question, for now.   Any water on its surface is almost certainly ice. But physicists have already found that the dwarf planet is losing 6 kilograms a second through plumes of water vapor that shoot out from its surface.   And many scientists think that there may be liquid water just beneath its frozen surface.   And finding liquid water in places that aren’t Earth is always exciting, because water is, of course, a key ingredient for cooking up the chicken soup that is life.   Ceres’ gravity will pull Dawn into orbit, and then the probe will slowly spiral its orbit inward, sending its observations back to Earth as it goes.    And when the mission officially ends in June 2016, Dawn won’t crash into Ceres’ surface the way we often tell probes to self-destruct.    Instead, it’ll continue orbiting Ceres indefinitely.    Forever.   So even long after we’ve stopped communicating with it, the probe will still be silently orbiting the dwarf world like a massive sign that reads “Humans were here!”   Thanks for joining me for Sci Show Space News. If you want to keep up to date on all the latest space news and space stuff, you can go to and subscribe!