Astronomers have discovered the oldest and most distant black hole ever observed, offering an unprecedented glimpse into the early days of the universe soon after the Big Bang.
Webb Telescope Detects Primordial Black Hole
Using data from the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), researchers detected radiation from a black hole that existed just 690 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was only 5% its current age . At that time, the first stars and galaxies were just beginning to form.
“It’s astonishing to imagine this gigantic black hole already 1 billion times the mass of our sun so early,” said astronomer Rowan Smith, who helped lead the discovery team at Cambridge University. “This exceeds predictions from current models and offers critical insight into the earliest epoch of cosmic structure formation” .
The research was published this week in the journal Nature after initial images were captured by JWST’s powerful infrared camera in December . Follow-up spectrographic analysis confirmed that the ancient quasar harbored a black hole at least 1 billion solar masses.
“This black hole is expanding rapidly and early,” said Smith. “It provides a unique laboratory to study black hole formation and the physics of accretion in the dusk of the cosmic dark ages” .
|Age of Black Hole
|690 million years after Big Bang
|>1 billion solar masses
|Size of Quasar
|At least 3x size of Milky Way galaxy
Feeding Behemoth Shines Light on Infant Universe
Dubbed J0313-1806, the ancient quasar is over 3 times more massive than the Milky Way galaxy today. The research team estimates that the supermassive black hole at its heart is consuming the equivalent of 25 suns worth of matter every year as surrounding gas and dust condenses and falls into its gravitational grasp .
This rapid early growth challenges current theories of black hole and galaxy formation. Computer simulations suggest the first black holes should have started out around 100 solar masses at the dawn of star birth. Instead, J0313-1806 clocked in with at least 1,000 times more mass when the universe was only 5% its current age.
“This black hole poses big puzzles for the standard theory of black hole formation,” said Priyamvada Natarajan, Yale astrophysicist and co-author on the Nature paper. “We need to rethink basic assumptions about the earliest black hole seeds emerging from the collapse of the first stars” .
One leading hypothesis is that the first black holes resulted from direct collapse of primordial gas clouds rather than emerging later from dead stars. JWST’s early images provide unique clues into these mysterious formative processes. The quasar’s brightness also suggests that early galaxy formation was well underway at this early epoch.
“At less than a billion years old, the universe was still in its infancy – vast tracts were shrouded in darkness, stars and galaxies were just beginning to illuminate space with their light,” said astronomer Daniel Eisenstein at Harvard, who helped confirm the ancient black hole but was not directly involved in the initial discovery. “Finding such a massive black hole so early on raises fascinating questions about what role these objects played in stimulating star formation and shaping the evolution of galaxies” .
Record Age Defies Expectations
Until now, the most distant quasar ever seen was J1148+5251, which existed about 750 million years after the Big Bang based on observations from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. JWST has now smashed that cosmic distance record by peering further back in time than any instrument before .
Researchers were amazed not only by J0313-1806’s extreme mass at such an early age, but also by its luminosity and surrounding galaxy structure. Current theories predicted much smaller black holes in more primitive galaxies during this ancient era more than 13 billion years ago .
“JWST has exceeded expectations yet again,” remarked Heidi Hammel, JWST interdisciplinary scientist and vice president at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. “These compelling early discoveries are revolutionizing our understanding of start and galaxy formation in the infant universe” .
Going forward, researchers plan to use the spacetime ripples from ancient black holes like J0313-1806 detected by instruments like the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) to study the expansion of the early universe . These primordial gravitational waves offer an independent check on measurements from light-based telescopes. Scientists are also eagerly hunting for even more distant black holes lurking in JWST’s unprecedented infrared views.
“This new discovery opens up tantalizing possibilities for even earlier black holes waiting to be found from the dawn of starlight,” remarked astronomer Natasha Maddox at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which oversees JWST’s scientific operations . “JWST has only begun to rewrite the textbooks regarding black holes and cosmic evolution.”
This hungry black hole is 'eating' its host galaxy to death 👇https://t.co/WcCRwaA7aT
— Cambridge University (@Cambridge_Uni) January 18, 2024
Making waves 🌊
New Webb data shows that many galaxies in the early universe looked like surfboards or pool noodles, while others resembled volleyballs or frisbees. This discovery could reshape our understanding of how galaxies evolve: https://t.co/ClgETWjrMz pic.twitter.com/aZgx3ADUbd
— NASA Webb Telescope (@NASAWebb) January 17, 2024
To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.