Astronomers observe elusive stellar light surrounding ancient quasars | Science & Technology

MIT astronomers have observed the elusive starlight surrounding some of the earliest quasars in the universe. The distant signals, which trace back more than 13 billion years to the universe’s infancy, are revealing clues to how the very first black holes and galaxies evolved.

Quasars are the blazing centers of active galaxies, which host an insatiable supermassive black hole at their core. Most galaxies host a central black hole that may occasionally feast on gas and stellar debris, generating a brief burst of light in the form of a glowing ring as material swirls in toward the black hole.

Quasars, by contrast, can consume enormous amounts of matter over much longer stretches of time, generating an extremely bright and long-lasting ring — so bright, in fact, that quasars are among the most luminous objects in the universe.

Because they are so bright, quasars outshine the rest of the galaxy in which they reside. But the MIT team was able for the first time to observe the much fainter light from stars in the host galaxies of three ancient quasars.

Based on this elusive stellar light, the researchers estimated the mass of each host galaxy, compared to the mass of its central supermassive black hole. They found that for these quasars, the central black holes were much more massive relative to their host galaxies, compared to their modern counterparts.

The findings, published today in the Astrophysical Journal, may shed light on how the earliest supermassive black holes became so massive despite having a relatively short amount of cosmic time in which to grow. In particular, those earliest monster black holes may have sprouted from more massive “seeds” than more modern black holes did.

“After the universe came into existence, there were seed black holes that then consumed material and grew in a very short time,” says study author Minghao Yue, a postdoc in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “One of the big questions is to understand how those…


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