One of the Oldest Black Holes Discovered by James Webb Space Telescope

An artist's illustration of black holes accretion disk. (Image credit: Getty Images)
An artist’s illustration of a black hole’s accretion disk. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Cosmic Whirlpools and the Early Universe

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) recently made a groundbreaking discovery by spotting the oldest black hole ever recorded. This ancient behemoth has a mass equivalent to 1.6 million suns and dates back a whopping 13 billion years in the history of the universe.

Equipped with powerful cameras that allow it to peer into the early stages of the cosmos, the JWST detected this supermassive black hole residing at the core of the young galaxy GN-z11, a mere 440 million years after the universe’s birth.

But this cosmic finding isn’t a solitary event; there are numerous black holes, like this one, that grew to enormous sizes during the cosmic dawn. This period, occurring around 100 million years after the Big Bang, marked the time when the youthful universe started emitting light for about a billion years.

A Hubble space telescope image of galaxy GN-z11 (shown in the inset) as it was 13.4bn years in the past, 400m years after the big bang. Photograph: HST/Nasa
A Hubble space telescope image of galaxy GN-z11 (shown in the inset) as it was 13.4bn years in the past, 400m years after the big bang. Photograph: HST/Nasa

The rapid expansion of these cosmic whirlpools during the early stages of the universe poses a puzzling question: how did they grow so quickly? Understanding this phenomenon could provide insights into the development of today’s supermassive black holes, which play a crucial role in anchoring entire galaxies, including our own Milky Way.

While the researchers shared their discoveries on the preprint database arXiv earlier this year, it’s important to note that the findings have not yet undergone the process of peer review.

Unraveling the Mysteries of Early Universe Black Holes

According to Roberto Maiolino, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Cambridge and the lead author of the study, black holes in the early universe don’t follow the same calm growth process observed in the present-day universe. He explained to Live Science that these ancient black holes must have undergone a unique birth and growth process.

In the more recent cosmic timeline, astronomers believe that black holes originate from the collapse of massive stars. Regardless of their origin, these cosmic entities grow by voraciously consuming gas, dust, stars, and even other black holes. As they feed, the friction generated causes the material spiraling into the black holes to heat up, emitting detectable light. This phenomenon transforms them into what’s known as active galactic nuclei (AGN).

The most extreme examples of AGN are quasars, supermassive black holes that weigh billions of times more than our sun and release luminous light blasts trillions of times brighter than the brightest stars.

In the study of the early universe, scientists utilize the fact that light travels at a fixed speed through the vacuum of space. The deeper astronomers look into the universe, the more ancient the light they intercept, allowing them to peer further back in time. To locate the ancient black hole, researchers scanned the sky using two infrared cameras on the JWST—Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) and Near Infrared Camera. They then utilized the cameras’ built-in spectrographs to break down the light into its component frequencies.

One of the Oldest Black Holes Discovered by James Webb Space Telescope
The segmented mirrors that weigh 46 pounds each also needed to fold origami-style so that they could fit inside the rocket and later bloom open once it reaches its destination. NASA/Desiree Stover via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

By dissecting these faint signals from the universe’s earliest epochs, scientists identified an unexpected spike in the frequencies contained within the light. This unexpected spike served as a crucial indication that the hot material surrounding a black hole was emitting faint traces of light that traversed the vast expanse of the universe.

Exploring Origins and Growth Mechanisms of Early Black Holes

The rapid growth of these early black holes has led scientists to consider two main explanations. One possibility is that they formed through the sudden collapse of massive gas clouds. Another hypothesis suggests that they emerged from the merging of various clumps of stars and black holes. These clumps might have come together through a series of mergers, contributing to the colossal size of these ancient black holes.

Despite these prevailing theories, astronomers are keeping an open mind about the origins of these fast-growing black holes. Some propose the intriguing idea that some of these cosmic entities could have originated from hypothetical “primordial” black holes. These primordial black holes are believed to have formed moments after, and in certain theories, even before the universe itself began.

Roberto Maiolino emphasized that the direct collapse of gas clouds isn’t the only way black holes can form. He pointed out the need for specific circumstances, such as a pristine cloud yet to be enriched by heavy elements produced by the first stars. Additionally, the cloud must have substantial mass, ranging from 10,000 to up to a million times that of our sun.

Moreover, to prevent the cloud from cooling too rapidly and forming massive stars instead of a black hole, it must be exposed to ultraviolet light. This light source could potentially come from a nearby galaxy or another black hole.

Maiolino highlighted the complexity of the conditions required, stating, “So we’re not necessarily looking for a single scenario, actually two or more of them could be at play.” The mystery surrounding the birth and growth of these early black holes continues to intrigue astronomers, prompting further exploration and study of the universe’s distant past.

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Source(s): Livescience

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