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Red supermassive black hole found in the shadows of the early universe

A team of astronomers led by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) has identified an extremely red, gravitationally lensed supermassive black hole in the early universe. This discovery, facilitated by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), suggests the black hole is concealed behind a thick dust veil, obscuring much of its light. 

Mysteries of the early universe 

The experts found that the black hole’s mass is significantly larger relative to its host galaxy compared to more local examples. The research marks a significant advancement in understanding the early universe.

Launched two years ago, the JWST has revolutionized our view of galaxy formation. The telescope has uncovered very early galaxies in greater numbers and with more brightness than anticipated, along with some new object types.

Looking far into the past

The discovery was made in images from the JWST, initially believed to be a lensed, quasar-like object from the early universe. Quasars are bright centers of galaxies where supermassive black holes actively accrete material, emitting vast amounts of radiation that overshadows the host galaxy. 

The images were part of the UNCOVER program, aimed at observing the galaxy cluster Abell 2744 with unprecedented depth. The mass of the cluster causes a gravitational lensing effect, magnifying background galaxies and allowing astronomers to see further into the past than otherwise possible.

Red-blooming objects 

“We were very excited when JWST started sending its first data. We were scanning the data that arrived for the UNCOVER program and three very compact yet red-blooming objects prominently stood out and caught our eyes,” said lead author Lukas Furtak, a postdoctoral researcher at BGU. “Their ‘red-dot’ appearance immediately led us to suspect that it was a quasar-like object.”

The team used a numerical lensing model of the galaxy cluster to determine that the red dots were multiple images of the same background source, seen when the universe was only about 700 million years old. 

“Analysis of the object’s colors indicated that it was not a typical star-forming galaxy. This further supported the supermassive black hole hypothesis,” said Professor Rachel Bezanson from the University of Pittsburgh and co-lead of the UNCOVER program.

Staggering results 

Acquiring JWST/NIRSpec data for the three images of the “red dot” provided staggering results. “The spectra were just mind blowing,” remarked another co-lead of the UNCOVER project, Professor Ivo Labbé from the Swinburne University of Technology

The analysis not only confirmed the object as a supermassive black hole and measured its exact redshift but also provided a solid estimate for its mass from the width of its emission lines.

The research led to the surprising finding that the black hole’s mass is exceedingly high compared to the mass of its host galaxy. 

“All the light of that galaxy must fit within a tiny region the size of a present-day star-cluster…Even packing all the possible stars into such a small region, the black hole ends up being at least 1% of the total mass of the system,” said Professor Jenny Greene from Princeton University, one of the lead authors of the paper.

Broader implications 

This discovery has opened up new discussions about the growth of supermassive black holes and their relationship with their host galaxies in the early universe, highlighting the mysteries surrounding their origins and development. 

“In a way, it’s the astrophysical equivalent of the chicken and egg problem,” Professor Adi Zitrin commented, reflecting on the ongoing debate about whether galaxies or black holes form first. With JWST continuing to detect “little red dots” and other active galactic nuclei, the astronomical community is hopeful for more insights into these ancient cosmic structures.

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