Two NASA space telescopes have spotted at the center of a distant galaxy a giant black hole that formed just 470 million years after the Big Bang, the oldest ever found, a discovery that may solve a major mystery about the origin of these cosmic monsters.
The findings, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, appear to confirm that supermassive black holes appeared early in the Universe’s history and were not necessarily created by the collapse of dying stars.
The black hole detected by the infrared James Webb Space Telescope and the Chandra Space Telescope, which looks into the X-ray spectrum, is 13.2 billion years old.
The researchers were surprised to find that it has about the same mass as its host galaxy, about 10 times the mass of the black hole lurking at the heart of our own Galaxy.
The oldest known black hole in Chandra and James Webb space telescope images (NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI)
Heavy duty holes
Black holes are roughly divided into two categories.
The most populous group are stellar mass black holes, which form when large stars exhaust their nuclear fuel and collapse under their own weight. Bodies of this class have a mass of about 10 to 100 times that of the Sun.
The second and more mysterious category are the “supermassive” black holes found at the centers of almost all galaxies and having a mass of millions or billions of times that of the Sun.
The origin of these giant black holes has puzzled cosmologists, who for years have been trying to clarify whether these bodies form gradually by absorbing material from their surroundings, or whether they are inherently supermassive.
The existence of a supermassive black hole in the young Universe supports the second theory, the researchers say.
“It’s too early in the history of the Universe for this giant to exist,” Priyamvada Natarajan of Yale, a member of the team behind the study, told The Associated Press. “It’s amazing that this stuff is already in place within the Galaxy so early after the birth of the Universe.
Researchers believe the supermassive black hole formed directly from the gravitational collapse of a giant gas cloud, the same mechanism that creates new stars.
This has never been seen to happen.
The new observations lend support to the theory that supermassive black holes form directly from gas clouds, but are not enough to prove that the same is true for supermassive black holes in other galaxies.
But thanks to James Webb, which is designed to look further into the Universe than ever before, researchers hope to soon discover more examples of primordial black holes.
As Natarajan commented, “We are waiting for a new window to open in the Universe and I believe this was just the beginning.”