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June 16, 2024

Astronomers Detect Earliest Black Hole Ever Observed, Providing Clues to the Early Universe

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Jan 20, 2024

Astronomers have detected the oldest and most distant black hole ever observed, breaking the record for the earliest known black hole. This groundbreaking discovery provides unprecedented insights into the early universe soon after the Big Bang.

Overview of the Discovery

Using data from the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), an international team of astronomers detected radiation from a quasar containing a black hole approximately 13.03 billion light-years away (Cam.ac.uk). This means the light observed was emitted just 670 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was only about 5% of its current age.

The black hole is estimated to have a mass about two billion times that of the sun (Space.com). Despite its early existence in the universe’s history, this black hole is gobbling up material at an extreme rate, consuming the equivalent of one Earth per second (The Hill). Its host galaxy is also merging with a smaller galaxy.

“It’s astonishing to me that we’ve been able to find such a rare object that dates back to the beginnings of the universe,” said Mariska Kriek, an astronomer at Cambridge University and member of the research team (Cam.ac.uk). “This tells us that very high-mass seed black holes probably existed early on in the universe, making this a cosmic dinosaur that evolved very quickly.”

Significance for Understanding Black Hole and Galaxy Formation

The detection of this early supermassive black hole challenges assumptions about how quickly black holes could form in the early universe. Based on previous observations of younger black holes, astronomers developed theories that it took billions of years for black holes to reach sizes of billions of solar masses through accumulating material and merging with other black holes.

“The discovery of this black hole raises questions about what amazing objects could have led to its formation so early on,” said NASA Astrophysics Division director Mark Clampin. “Thanks to Webb’s outstanding sensitivity, we’ll be able to study this black hole in detail and better understand the rapid growth of early supermassive black holes and their host galaxies.” (NASA)

Some possibilities proposed by astronomers for the existence of this early, large black hole are that it formed from a large seed black hole created by the collapse of a giant cloud of gas early in the universe, or that it experienced an initial growth spurt through consuming dense surrounding gas. Further observations and modeling will help discriminate between different formation scenarios.

“The discovery of a black hole from so early on in the universe’s history leads us to think that the very first black hole seeds were even earlier,” said Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at UC Santa Cruz involved in the research. “The find allows us to begin exploring the dawn of black hole and galaxy formation.” (Sci.news)

In addition to rethinking models of black hole formation, the detection of this black hole and its host galaxy will help astronomers gain insights into the intertwined growth of early massive galaxies and black holes.

“Understanding how black holes form and influence the formation and evolution of galaxies throughout cosmic time is a major focus of research in astronomy,” said Ivo Labbe, an astronomer at Swinburne University of Technology. “This discovery opens up an exciting new window into this early period of cosmic history.” (Swinburne University)

Details of the Observation

The black hole was initially spotted as a very red dot in JWST images of the distant universe. Follow-up spectroscopic observations using the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on JWST provided detailed information about the chemical composition and velocity of surrounding gas.

“The data matched predictions for an early quasar with a supermassive black hole at its center actively consuming gas,” said European Space Agency (ESA) astronomer Iva Karovicova, who analyzed the JWST data. “Additional data confirmed it as the earliest quasar ever found, containing the oldest massive black hole yet observed.” (ESA)

Instrument Wavelength Coverage Key Measurement
NIRISS 0.6 – 5 microns Chemical composition and dynamics of accreting gas
MIRI 5 – 28 microns Dust emission and obscured star formation

While the black hole itself emits no light, astronomers can study its properties and behavior through radiation emitted by surrounding hot gas as it spirals inward. Material falling toward the black hole releases intense bursts of X-ray radiation. Some of this emission is absorbed by gas clouds farther out, heating them up to temperatures over 10,000° Fahrenheit. These hot clouds then glow brightly, particularly at infrared wavelengths detectable by JWST.

“JWST’s wide infrared wavelength range provided comprehensive measurements tracing gas and dust surrounding this early monster black hole,” said astronomer Priyamvada Natarajan of Yale University. “The accretion activity is so intense that the host galaxy is being transformed by it.” (Yale University)

By analyzing properties of the emitted radiation like brightness, astronomers can determine characteristics of the black hole such as its mass and rate of growth. Ongoing observations by JWST and other telescopes will provide further details about the quasar host galaxy merger and the behavior of its central, record-breaking black hole.

Outlook and Future Work

Now that astronomers have shown that massive black holes existed earlier in cosmic history than previously known, an exciting new discovery space has opened up to study the infant universe. Scientists plan to conduct surveys searching for more early black holes using JWST and ground-based observatories. Finding additional examples would allow comparative studies to better understand their origins and role in early galaxy evolution.

“With JWST now online and more ground-based instruments coming, I expect astronomers will discover black holes dating back to the first hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang,” said UCLA astronomer Andrea Ghez, who was not involved in the recent discovery. “We’re gaining observational power to probe earlier and earlier times.” (UCLA)

Ongoing detailed analysis of the newly found black hole, as well as theoretical modeling work, will also help refine the story of how the earliest structures formed after the Big Bang.

“This detection sparks my imagination to wonder when black holes really formed, how they influenced nascent galaxies, and what other surprises await JWST,” said Johns Hopkins University astronomer Niel Brandt. “This glimpse back to the beginning of time captures the scientific spirit of exploration and discovery that will inspire people for generations.” (JHU)

Ultimately, by revealing an early, rapidly growing supermassive black hole, this first major discovery of the JWST explores new territory in the study of cosmic origins and launches an exciting new era in astronomy.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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