Study: Supermassive black holes surprisingly common in early universe

Astronomers detected a supermassive black hole only 750 million years after the Big Bang.
Chris Young
An illustration of a black hole
An illustration of a black hole

Paul Jansen/iStock 

Astronomers discovered a rapidly growing black hole in one of the most extreme galaxies from the early universe.

Scientists from the University of Texas and the University of Arizona detected the colossal giant using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) radio observatory in Chile.

Their observations shed new light on the formation of the earliest supermassive black holes and their role in early galaxies.

A supermassive black hole in an extremely active galaxy

The new observations, detailed in a paper in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, show a supermassive black hole in a galaxy named COS-87259. This galaxy is an incredibly productive stellar nursery, as it produces stars at a rate 1000 times that of our own Milky Way and contains over a billion solar masses worth of interstellar dust.

The black hole at the center of that galaxy is believed to be a newly-discovered type of primordial black hole. It is shrouded in cosmic dust, meaning its light is emitted mainly in the mid-infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum.

These types of growing supermassive black holes are typically referred to as active galactic nucleus. The one observed by the scientists appears to be generating a powerful jet of material through the host galaxy at a velocity near the speed of light.

Detecting supermassive black holes and complex galaxies in the early universe

The supermassive black hole in the new images is so far away that astronomers observed an image of the cosmic giant as it appeared only 750 million years after the Big Bang.

Impressively, the black hole was discovered in a patch of the night sky less than 10 times the size of the full moon. This suggests there could be thousands of similar objects in the very early universe. It is a completely unexpected result that could alter our understanding of the early formation of the universe.

"These results suggest that very early supermassive black holes were often heavily obscured by dust, perhaps as a consequence of the intense star formation activity in their host galaxies," Ryan Endsley, the lead author of the paper and now a Postdoctoral Fellow at The University of Texas at Austin, explained in a press statement. "This is something others have been predicting for a few years now, and it's really nice to see the first direct observational evidence supporting this scenario."

The new finding also goes hand in hand with James Webb Space Telescope data showing early galaxies that are much more complex than believed possible during such an early period of the cosmos.

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