Scientists found a colossal black hole near the dawn of time


NASA artist depicting a supermassive black hole

The James Webb Space Telescope has detected the farthest supermassive black hole yet — a space vortex so far from home, it’s in one of the first galaxies of the universe. 

Black holes were little more than a theory 50 years ago — a kooky mathematical answer to a physics problem — but even astronomers at the top of their field weren’t entirely convinced they existed. 

Today, not only are supermassive black holes accepted science, they’re getting their pictures taken by a collection of enormous, synced-up radio dishes on Earth. Webb, the leading infrared space observatory, is also doing its part to reveal how these mysterious behemoths form in the first place. The finding was recently published in the journal Nature and highlighted by NASA during its Black Hole Week campaign.

The supermassive black hole was found at the center of GN-z11, an extremely luminous galaxy that was alive when the universe was only about 430 million years old, a fraction of its current age, which is nearing 14 billion. 

Black holes are some of the most inscrutable phenomena in outer space. They don’t have surfaces, like a planet or star. Instead, they have a boundary called an “event horizon,” or a point of no return. If anything swoops too close, it will fall in, never to escape the hole’s gravitational clutch.

The most common kind, called a stellar black hole, is thought to be the result of an enormous star dying in a supernova explosion. The star’s material then collapses onto itself, condensing into a relatively tiny area. 

Astronomers imaging Milky Way black hole

The first image of Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.
Credit: Event Horizon Telescope collaboration

But how supermassive black holes, millions to billions of times more massive than the sun, form is even more elusive than typical stellar black holes. Many astrophysicists and cosmologists believe these invisible giants lurk at the center of virtually all galaxies. Recent Hubble Space Telescope observations have bolstered the theory that supermassive black holes begin in the dusty cores of starburst galaxies, where new stars are rapidly assembled, but scientists are still teasing it out. 

A team of scientists using Webb was able to discern that GN-z11 has a central black hole with a few pieces of evidence. 

“We found extremely dense gas that is common in the vicinity of supermassive black holes accreting gas,” said Roberto Maiolino, the principal investigator at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, in a statement. “These were the first clear signatures that GN-z11 is hosting a black hole that is gobbling matter.”

Then, the team found signs of electrically charged chemicals that are usually found near active supermassive black holes. The scientists also observed the ancient galaxy blasting out a powerful wind, something also linked to supermassive black holes with voracious appetites. 

With all of these clues taken together, the team believes GN-z11 has a central black hole as massive as 2 million suns. 

Another team of researchers is studying this ancient galaxy for proof of first-generation stars, so-called “Population III” stars. The confusingly named stars are thought to have formed in the early universe, before elements heavier than helium existed. 

JWST flying through space

The James Webb Space Telescope is also doing its part to reveal how these mysterious behemoths form in the first place.
Credit: NASA GSFC / CIL / Adriana Manrique Gutierrez illustration

Most of the elements in the universe come from exploded dead stars, so scientists have figured that the firstborn stars were probably composed almost entirely of hydrogen and helium, the primitive material that blew out of the Big Bang. 

Scientists have theorized that they might find helium clumps around massive galaxies from early eras. The thinking is that these pristine pockets of gas could collapse and form Population III star clusters. The team thinks it has spotted such a clump in the halo surrounding the galaxy. 

Finding proof of these stars could be one of the most important discoveries of modern astrophysics. 

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