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Ancient black holes and quasars grew faster than their galaxies

Scientists have always been fascinated by black holes, the cosmic behemoths that devour everything in their path. But a specific subset of black holes has posed a particular puzzle. This mystery involves supermassive black holes found in distant quasars – blazing beacons marking the very early universe.

How did these monstrous black holes become so massive in the relatively short time since the universe was born? Thanks to a groundbreaking study by MIT astronomers and the powerful James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), we may finally be inching closer to an explanation.

Quasars and supermassive black holes

Quasars are energetic giants that reside at the hearts of galaxies. These celestial powerhouses outshine all the combined light emitted by the billions of stars within their host galaxies. The source of this phenomenal luminosity lies in a supermassive black hole lurking at the quasar’s core.

This monstrous black hole isn’t passive; it actively devours a colossal amount of surrounding gas and dust. As this material falls towards the black hole’s immense gravity, it gets crushed and heated to unimaginable temperatures.

This extreme environment triggers the release of tremendous energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation, making quasars some of the brightest objects in the observable universe.

The immense distances across the cosmos act as a natural time machine. Since light travels at a finite speed, the farther we look into space, the further back in time we see. This makes quasars invaluable tools for astronomers.

Because of their incredible brightness, quasars are visible from vast cosmic distances, allowing us to observe them as they existed billions of years ago, during the very early stages of the universe’s formation. Studying these distant beacons offers unique insights into the processes that shaped galaxies and the universe as we know it today.

Cosmic searchlight

The fundamental challenge in studying quasars lies in the overwhelming brilliance emitted by the central supermassive black hole. This intense light completely washes out any subtler signals, effectively masking the presence of other objects within the quasar’s host galaxy.

The surrounding stars, despite numbering in the billions, become virtually invisible. Efforts to study the properties of these host galaxies have been largely unsuccessful – until now.

MIT astronomers have leveraged the unparalleled capabilities of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This revolutionary instrument offers extraordinary sensitivity and resolution. It allows scientists to dissect celestial light sources with unprecedented detail.

With meticulous analysis of JWST data, the researchers pierced through the quasar’s blinding glare. In a recent achievement, they’ve started to detect the faint traces of starlight from the ancient galaxies hosting these early supermassive black holes.

Time-traveling discovery

The latest findings from MIT astronomers completely upend our previous understanding of supermassive black holes. By meticulously studying three extremely distant quasars, they’ve peered back in time over 13 billion years.

These ancient quasars harbor supermassive black holes that are significantly more massive in comparison to their host galaxies, compared to what we observe in present-day galaxies within our own observable universe.

This striking difference suggests a crucial fact: in the very first stages of the universe’s existence, supermassive black holes must have grown at an extraordinarily rapid rate. This discovery throws open new questions about the formation and early growth mechanisms of these cosmic giants.

Black hole’s monster seeds of quasar

So, how did these titans get so big so fast? “After the universe came into existence, there were seed black holes that then consumed material and grew in a very short time,” noted study co-author Minghao Yue.

The key might lie in the size of these “seed” black holes. Think of it like this: to build a skyscraper, you need a strong foundation. Likewise, perhaps early supermassive black holes may have started out from more massive and denser seeds than what exists later in the universe’s history.

“These black holes are billions of times more massive than the sun, at a time when the universe is still in its infancy,” explained study co-author Anna-Christina Eilers. “Our results imply that in the early universe, supermassive black holes might have gained their mass before their host galaxies did, and the initial black hole seeds could have been more massive than today.”

The James Webb Space Telescope is transforming how we view the cosmos. It allows us to see fainter and further back in time than ever before. This study is just one example of how the JWST promises to shift our understanding of the universe’s earliest years and illuminate the mysteries swirling around the cosmic giants that reside within them.

The study is published in the journal The Astrophysical Journal.


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