From a record-setting black hole to the oldest animal DNA ever recovered, discoveries in 2021 stretched the limits of scientific study — and our imaginations.

Oldest behemoth black hole

More than 13 billion years ago, when the universe was a mere 670 million years old, a black hole was born. At a mass equal to 1.6 billion suns, the newly discovered supermassive black hole J0313-1806 is twice as heavy and 20 million years older than the previous record holder for oldest known black hole (SN: 2/13/21, p. 4). The ancient behemoth is so big that it challenges notions of how supermassive black holes first formed, astronomers say.

a horizontal glass beam with gold spheres

Every object with mass has gravity too, according to both Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, even if it’s barely noticeable. Scientists have now measured the gravity of a gold ball 2 millimeters wide and weighing about 90 milligrams — the smallest object ever to have its gravitational pull measured (SN: 4/10/21, p. 5). The tiny tug revealed that gravity behaves as predicted, even for very small masses. Researchers still want to test how gravity behaves on the even smaller quantum scale, where different rules of physics may apply.

illustration of a pterosaur

In a newly reported class of cosmic smashup, a neutron star (shown orange in this computer simulation, after the video zooms in) and a black hole (dark gray) spiral inward, producing gravitational waves (blue) in a dance that ends when the black hole swallows the neutron star.

First-of-its-kind merger

For the first time, a black hole has been seen gobbling up a neutron star, the collapsed remains of a dead supergiant star. Astronomers detected the event by measuring gravitational waves that emanated from the collision and eventually reached Earth (SN: 7/31/21, p. 6). All previously identified sources of these ripples in spacetime consisted of two like objects colliding, such as two neutron stars or two black holes.

illustration of mammoths

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