Hubble spots possible answer to supermassive black hole birth mystery

25 May 201613 Shares

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Artist's impression of the surroundings of the supermassive black hole in NGC 3783. Image via ESO/M Kornmesser

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Using the power of the Hubble Space Telescope, a team of astrophysicists believes it has spotted the cosmic seeds that give birth to supermassive black holes, challenging a number of previously-held beliefs.

Supermassive black holes have been a focus of intense speculation and wonder among the astronomical community, not only for being one of the largest phenomena in the universe, but also one of the most perplexing.

Of particular interest has been how the earliest generation of supermassive black holes formed very quickly after the Big Bang, and now an Italian team has said it has spotted two objects in deep space that are the likeliest candidates yet to have been the seeds of supermassive black holes.

Challenging established theories

Both approximately 100,000-times the mass of our own sun, these two seeds appear to be challenging a previous theory held on the birth of supermassive black holes, which said that the seeds grow out of smaller black holes.

The black hole seeds would then grow through mergers with other small black holes and by pulling in gas from their surroundings, however, the slow pace of this process would not account for the rapid speed of its development in just 1bn years.

This image shows one of two detected supermassive black hole seeds, OBJ29323, as it is seen by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Image via NASA/STScI/ESA

This image shows one of two detected supermassive black hole seeds, OBJ29323, as it is seen by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Image via NASA/STScI/ESA

These new findings, however, suggest another scenario in which massive black holes of the same mass as these two recent discoveries would be formed directly when a massive cloud of gas collapses.

This would jump-start the birth of supermassive black holes in the time frame of around 1bn years.

The hunt continues

“There is a lot of controversy over which path these black holes take,” said co-author Andrea Ferrara, of the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy.

“Our work suggests we are converging on one answer, where black holes start big and grow at the normal rate, rather than starting small and growing at a very fast rate.”

This appears to be just the beginning of their process of confirming this theory – the first step being to publish their findings in a peer-reviewed paper – but the team will now begin the hunt again to find other similar candidates out there.

This will be done by running follow-up observations in X-rays and in the infrared range to check whether the two objects have more of the properties expected for black hole seeds.

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Colm Gorey is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com