The James Webb Space Telescope could reveal the origin of primeval black holes

From when the universe was only 700 million years old.
Brad Bergan
Webb in space (left), and an abstract depiction of a relentless vortex (right).1, 2

The beginnings of our universe were a dark, mysterious time.

And with the James Webb Telescope, we're about to see the darkest parts of the universe's origin, in real-time.

As the team supervising Webb goes on commissioning its science instruments for forthcoming science missions, they are well aware of new discoveries in modern astronomy. Namely, the recent image released of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way — which to the Webb team emphasizes the need for the space telescope to look unspeakably far back in time, to when the universe was roughly 700 million years old.

And, according to a recent blog post from NASA, the James Webb Telescope could even reveal how puzzling "hyper-massive" black holes came to be — which seem to grow faster than they've had time to.

The James Webb Space Telescope could reveal how primeval black holes formed so rapidly

"One of the most exciting areas of discovery that Webb is about to open is the search for primeval black holes in the early universe." said Robert Maiolino, a member of Webb's Near-Infrared Spectrometer (NIRSpec) science team, in the blog post. "These are the seeds of the much more massive black holes that astronomers have found in galactic nuclei. Most (probably all) galaxies host black holes at their centers, with masses ranging from millions to billions of times the mass of our Sun."

"These supermassive black holes have grown to be so large both by gobbling matter around them and also through the merging of smaller black holes," added Maiolino. "An intriguing finding has been the discovery of hyper-massive black holes, with masses of several billion solar masses, already in place when the universe was only about 700 million years old, a small fraction of its current age of 13.8 billion years."

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This baffled scientists, since — when the universe was this young — not enough time seems available in the lifespan of the cosmos to support the growth of such hyper-massive black holes. At least, according to theories considered standard today. "One possibility is that black holes, resulting from the death of the very first generation of stars in the early universe, have accreted material at exceptionally high rates," said Maiolino.

Webb Blog Black Holes
An illustration of the distribution of black hole populations according to formation events. Source: Roberto Maiolino / University of Cambridge / NASA

The James Webb Telescope is the ideal 'time machine'

"Another scenario is that primeval, pristine gas clouds, not yet enriched by chemical elements heavier than helium, could directly collapse to form a black hole with a mass of a few hundred thousand solar masses, and subsequently accrete matter to evolve into the hyper-massive black holes observed at later epochs," added Maiolino. But it's also possible that nuclear star clusters in close proxy to baby galaxies' centers generated intermediate-mass black holes.

This could've happened through the process of stellar collisions, or the mashing together of two stellar-mass black holes. In the latter case, excess mass observed from today would be due to ongoing accretion of surrounding matter.

"Webb is about to open a completely new discovery space in this area. It is possible that the first black hole seeds originally formed in the ‘baby universe,’ within just a few million years after the big bang," said Maiolino. To him, Webb is the ideal "time machine" for studying and analyzing primeval black holes — since its high sensitivity will enable the detection of galaxies at unprecedented distances. Most incredibly, since the speed of light is finite, we'll be gazing at these galaxies — and any primeval black holes in and around them — as they were in the unconscionably remote past. All thanks to Webb, once its science missions kick-off.

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