September 30, 2023

Webb telescope spies the most distant supermassive black hole ever recorded

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The James Webb Space Telescope has made another amazing discovery, spying on an active supermassive black hole deeper in the universe than has ever been recorded.

The black hole is located in CEERS 1019 – an extremely old galaxy that likely formed 570 million years after the Big Bang – making it more than 13 billion years old. And scientists were perplexed when they discovered just how small the central black hole of the celestial body is.

“This black hole has a mass of about 9 million solar masses,” said a NASA press release. A solar mass is a unit equal to the mass of the sun in our home solar system – which is about 333,000 times larger than Earth.

That is “much less than other black holes that also existed in the early universe and were detected by other telescopes,” according to NASA. “Those behemoths typically contain more than 1 billion times the mass of the sun — and they’re easier to detect because they’re much brighter.”

The ability to focus such a faint, distant black hole is a key feature of the Webb telescope, which uses highly sensitive instruments to detect otherwise invisible light.

“Looking at this distant object with this telescope is a lot like looking at data from black holes that exist in galaxies near ours,” said Rebecca Larson, who received her doctorate this year from the University of Texas at Austin, in a declaration. Larson, who led this discovery, is now a postdoctoral research associate in the Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Physics and Astronomy.

Not only did the researchers locate this fascinating black hole — they also discovered two others nearby that appear to have formed about 1 billion years after the Big Bang and were also lightweight compared to others from that period.

Eleven new galaxies were also recorded with evidence from Webb’s Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science, or CEERS, Survey, also led by the University of Texas at Austin.

In the CEERS 1019 system

The relative smallness of the black hole at the center of CEER 1019 is a mystery to scientists. It is not yet clear how such a small black hole formed in the early days of the universe, which was known to produce much larger gravitational sources.

The galaxy CEERS 1019 has other interesting features. For example, it appears as a series of three bright spots, rather than a single disc-shaped formation of many other galaxies.

“We’re not used to seeing so much structure in images at these distances,” CEERS team member Jeyhan Kartaltepe of New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology said in a statement. “A galaxy merger could be partly responsible for fueling activity in this galaxy’s black hole, and that could also lead to more star formation.”

According to NASA, the newly discovered galaxies are still spewing out new stars. And these findings, along with others from the CEERS survey, could lead to fascinating breakthroughs.

“Webb was the first to detect some of these galaxies,” Seiji Fujimoto, a NASA Hubble Fellow at UT Austin who was part of the University of Texas at Austin team that discovered 11 new galaxies, said in a statement. “This set, along with other distant galaxies we may identify in the future, could change our understanding of star formation and galaxy evolution in cosmic history.”

Researchers also note that the black hole in CEERS 1019 may only briefly be the most distant active supermassive black hole on record.

The astronomical community is already flooding with data that could locate other more distant black holes. That could happen in just “a few weeks,” according to NASA.

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