Astronomers have made a groundbreaking discovery using NASA telescopes, identifying the most distant black hole ever observed in X-rays. This black hole, in its early growth stage, displays a mass comparable to its host galaxy, a phenomenon previously unseen.
This finding offers insights into the formation of early supermassive black holes in the universe. By merging data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and James Webb Space Telescope, researchers detected the distinctive signature of a growing black hole a mere 470 million years after the big bang. This marks a crucial step in understanding the formation of some of the universe’s.
Astronomers made a historic discovery using the Chandra and Webb space telescopes by detecting the most distant black hole ever observed in X-rays, located in the galaxy UHZ1. X-ray emissions, indicative of a growing supermassive black hole, were identified. This finding holds the potential to elucidate the formation of early supermassive black holes in the universe. Images of the galaxy cluster Abell 2744, where UHZ1 is situated, were captured in X-rays by Chandra and in infrared by Webb.
The galaxy’s immense distance, 13.2 billion light-years from Earth, was revealed by Webb data, providing insights into cosmic history when the universe was just 3% of its current age. Akos Bogdan, leading the research at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, highlighted the collaborative role of Webb and Chandra, leveraging gravitational lensing to enhance light detection.
After two weeks of observations with Chandra, researchers identified intense, superheated X-ray-emitting gas in the galaxy, a characteristic sign of a growing supermassive black hole. Gravitational lensing in the galaxy cluster Abell 2744 magnified both the galaxy’s light and the X-rays from the gas surrounding its supermassive black hole by a factor of four. This magnification, a result of intervening matter, allowed Webb to detect an enhanced infrared signal, while Chandra picked up the faint X-ray source.
This discovery is crucial for understanding the rapid growth of some supermassive black holes soon after the big bang. It raises questions about their formation—whether they originate from the collapse of massive gas clouds, creating black holes weighing between 10,000 and 100,000 Suns, or from explosions of the first stars, resulting in black holes weighing only 10 to 100 Suns.
Andy Goulding of Princeton University emphasized the physical limits on black hole growth and the advantage of those born more massive in a process likened to planting a sapling versus starting with a seed. Goulding is a co-author of the Nature Astronomy paper and the lead author of a related paper in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, providing details on the galaxy’s distance and mass using Webb’s spectrum.
Bogdan’s research team has presented compelling evidence suggesting that the newly discovered black hole was born with substantial mass. Estimated to weigh between 10 and 100 million Suns based on the characteristics of its X-rays, this mass range aligns with the total mass of all the stars in its host galaxy. This starkly contrasts with black holes in the centers of nearby galaxies, which typically account for only a fraction of a percent of their host galaxy’s star mass.
The large mass of this young black hole, coupled with its X-ray emissions and the galaxy’s brightness observed by Webb, corroborates theoretical predictions made in 2017 by co-author Priyamvada Natarajan of Yale University. Natarajan’s predictions outlined the concept of an “Outsize Black Hole” formed directly from the collapse of a massive gas cloud.
This discovery marks a significant milestone, representing the first detection of such a black hole and offering strong evidence that certain black holes originate from colossal gas clouds, providing a unique glimpse into a phase where a supermassive black hole’s mass rivals that of the stars in its galaxy before diverging in growth.
The researchers intend to leverage the findings from Webb, along with data from other telescopes, to construct a more comprehensive understanding of the early universe. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope previously demonstrated that light from distant galaxies undergoes significant magnification due to matter in intervening galaxy clusters, providing the impetus for the observations conducted by Webb and Chandra. The results of Bogdan’s team, detailed in a paper in Nature Astronomy with a preprint available online, contribute valuable insights.
The Webb data utilized in both papers is derived from the Ultradeep Nirspec and nirCam ObserVations before the Epoch of Reionization (UNCOVER) survey. The paper led by UNCOVER team member Andy Goulding is featured in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, with co-authors including other UNCOVER team members, Bogdan, and Natarajan. Additionally, a forthcoming detailed interpretation paper will compare observed properties of UHZ1 with theoretical models for Outsize Black Hole Galaxies.
The Chandra program is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center overseeing science operations from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and flight operations from Burlington, Massachusetts.
The James Webb Space Telescope stands as the premier space science observatory globally, unraveling mysteries within our solar system, exploring distant worlds around other stars, and delving into the enigmatic structures and origins of our universe. An international program led by NASA, Webb collaborates with partners ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.