Hubble spots a supermassive black hole being born for the first time

It's the 'missing link' between early star-forming galaxies and the first supermassive black holes.
Brad Bergan
The beginnings of a supermassive black hole (left), and a computer simulation of one (right).1, 2

Hubble just expanded our knowledge of a monster.

Astronomers working with data from the Hubble Space Telescope have identified a growing supermassive black hole in the very early universe — when the cosmos was just 750 million years old — marking the first direct observation of a black hole growing into a monstrous supermassive black hole, according to a new study published in the journal Nature.

Theories and computer simulations have long predicted the existence of rapidly growing black holes inside of dusty, early-universe galaxies where stars can form, but this one — called GNz7q — is the first time this process has been confirmed.

And it was the Hubble Space Telescope that made it happen.

Hubble GOODS North Field
Hubble zoomed in on the ancient universe and spotted the rapidly growing black hole, called GNZ7q. Source: NASA, ESA, Garth Illingworth (UC Santa Cruz), Pascal Oesch (UC Santa Cruz, Yale), Rychard Bouwens (LEI), I. Labbe (LEI), Cosmic Dawn Center/Niels Bohr Institute/University of Copenhagen, Denmark

How did supermassive black holes form so fast?

"Our analysis suggests that GNz7q is the first example of a rapidly growing black hole in the dusty core of a starburst galaxy at an epoch close to the earliest supermassive black hole known in the universe," said Astronomer Seiji Fujimoto of the Niels Bohr Institute of the University of Copenhagen, who is also the lead author of the new study, in a blog post from NASA.

"The object's properties across the electromagnetic spectrum are in excellent agreement with predictions from theoretical simulations," added Fujimoto. One of the most baffling mysteries in modern astronomy circles around the question of how supermassive black holes came into being. They weigh millions to billions of times more than the sun, but they cover that distance in comparably short timeframes.

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So far, theories about supermassive black hole formation have hinted that it happens in the dust-shrouded cores of galaxies that form stars at a very rapid pace — dubbed "starburst" galaxies — until the surrounding gas is shoved away, leaving unconscionably bright quasars (or active black holes) in their wake.

It's a rare find, but dusty starburst galaxies, along with quasars, have been spotted before in the early universe.

Black Hole Starburst Galaxy
An artist's impression of the starburst galaxy containing the rapidly growing black hole. Source: NASA, ESA, N. Bartmann

The rapidly growing black hole is a 'precursor' to supermassive black holes

The object, GNz7q has both qualities: the starburst galaxy and a quasar, the latter of which gives a dust reddened hue. The object also appears to be lacking several features that are typically seen in highly luminous quasars, which signifies the accretion disk surrounding supermassive black holes.

This means that the growing black hole is still in its less massive phase, but its behavior and environment match predictions from simulations. "GNz7q provides a direct connection between these two rare populations and provides a new avenue toward understanding the rapid growth of supermassive black holes in the early days of the universe," added Fujimoto, in the NASA blog post. "Our discovery provides an example of precursors to the supermassive black holes we observe at later epochs."

There's much more to unpack from the study, but suffice to say we've begun to answer a long-standing question about the origin of supermassive black holes, using the Hubble Space Telescope. Once the James Webb Space Telescope goes active, one can only imagine what it may see in the region of GNz7q.

This was a developing story and was regularly updated as new information became available.

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