It’s a question that has plagued astronomers for years: How did it, which can weigh billions of times the mass of the sun, grow so big, so fast? Now researchers are closer than ever to the answer.
NASA announced last week that a potential “missing link” between the universe’s first supermassive black holes and young, star-forming galaxies was hiding in common sight – and that helps explain some of the mysteries of how the universe was formed.
Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers found a fast-growing black hole called GNz7q. Scientists say it has “lurked unnoticed” in one of the most studied areas in the sky, the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey-North field.
Use of archive data from‘s Advanced Camera for Surveys, a team of international scientists determined that the “monster” object existed only 750 million years after the Big Bang, during the “cosmic dawn” – the early period after the birth of our universe. It is the first of its kind that has been discovered.
Scientists found a compact source of ultraviolet and infrared light that could not be attributed to star formation alone; rather, it corresponds to the radiation expected of materials falling into a black hole. They say the best explanation is a fast-growing black hole covered in dust, which will eventually appear as aa radiant light source in the heart of a baby galaxy.
This type of black hole, which turns into an extremely luminous quasar, was predicted by theories and computer simulations, but never observed – until now. The results are published in the journal Nature.
“Our analysis suggests that GNz7q is the first example of a fast-growing black hole in the dusty core of a shooting star galaxy in an era close to the earliest supermassive black hole known in the universe,” said lead author Seiji Fujimoto. “The properties of the object across the electromagnetic spectrum are in excellent agreement with predictions from theoretical simulations.”
“GNz7q provides a direct link between these two rare populations and provides a new path to understand the rapid growth of supermassive black holes in the early days of the universe,” Fujimoto continued. “Our discovery provides an example of precursors to the supermassive black holes we observe in later eras.”
Other interpretations of the data are possible, but scientists say the observations are in strong agreement with their previous theories. They were surprised to spot the monumental discovery of what might be considered a more obvious place, suggesting the possibility of many more similar objects.
“GNz7q is a unique discovery found right in the middle of a famous, well-researched sky – it shows that great discoveries can often be hidden right in front of you,” said team member Gabriel Brammer. “It is unlikely that the discovery of GNz7q within the relatively small GOODS-North study area was merely ‘stupid luck’, but rather that the prevalence of such sources may actually be significantly higher than previously thought.”
Next, the team plans to search for related objects using dedicated surveys. Researchers will also use the newly launcheds spectroscopic instruments to further study GNz7q in more detail – and find out how common these types of objects are.