Astronomers detect oldest black hole ever observed | Science & Technology

Researchers have discovered the oldest black hole ever observed, dating from the dawn of the universe, and found that it is ‘eating’ its host galaxy to death.

The international team, led by the University of Cambridge, used the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to detect the black hole, which dates from 400 million years after the big bang, more than 13 billion years ago. The results, which lead author Professor Roberto Maiolino says are “a giant leap forward,” are reported in the journal Nature.

That this surprisingly massive black hole — a few million times the mass of our Sun — even exists so early in the universe challenges our assumptions about how black holes form and grow. Astronomers believe that the supermassive black holes found at the centre of galaxies like the Milky Way grew to their current size over billions of years. But the size of this newly-discovered black hole suggests that they might form in other ways: they might be ‘born big’ or they can eat matter at a rate that’s five times higher than had been thought possible.

According to standard models, supermassive black holes form from the remnants of dead stars, which collapse and may form a black hole about a hundred times the mass of the Sun. If it grew in an expected way, this newly-detected black hole would take about a billion years to grow to its observed size. However, the universe was not yet a billion years old when this black hole was detected.

“It’s very early in the universe to see a black hole this massive, so we’ve got to consider other ways they might form,” said Maiolino, from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and Kavli Institute of Cosmology. “Very early galaxies were extremely gas-rich, so they would have been like a buffet for black holes.”

Like all black holes, this young black hole is devouring material from its host galaxy to fuel its growth. Yet, this ancient black hole is found to gobble matter much more vigorously than its siblings at later epochs.


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