The first known black hole in the universe has been identified by the James Webb Space Telescope. The discovery could tell us a lot about the origin of the supermassive black holes that formed much later. Many galaxies have a supermassive black hole at their center, but it is not clear exactly how they became so large.

One possibility is that they formed from small black holes created by the collapse of the first stars. Another suggestion is that they are the result of huge amounts of gas in the early universe. This gas then collapsed directly into a black hole, without ever forming a star.

Role of James Webb

Rebecca Larson of the University of Texas at Austin and her colleagues have identified the first example of a black hole described in a newly released paper (ref.). Based on its distance from Earth, it formed just 570 million years after the beginning of the Universe. Its mass is 10 million times that of the Sun, making it an intermediate black hole, according to cosmological standards.

“This is really important unexplored territory for the formation and growth of black holes in the early universe” says Larson. “We know where we need to go, but we don’t really know how we got there. We are now starting, for the first time, to really fill in the gaps and put together a better picture of how these cosmic objects formed”.

To identify the black hole, Larson and her team pointed James Webb at a specific galaxy, CEERS1019. The Hubble Space Telescope had already investigated this galaxy and identified it as the brightest in this part of the universe. However, Hubble was unable to discern what was inside.

Revealing Signals

Using NIRcam, NIRspec, and MIRI, instruments on board the James Webb Space Telescope, the different components of the light signal emitted by the galaxy were identified. This signal reaches peaks that identify the elements that produce them. “One of them had a peak, with a very broad base that undoubtedly comes from the black hole in the center” says Larson.

This first example of a primordial black hole in the universe seems to suggest that it did not develop from the collapse of a stellar mass, says James Mullaney of the University of Sheffield. “We are ruling out that these stellar-mass black holes are viable sources, unless there is very rapid growth of these black holes in the early stages of the universe.”

Stefano Gallotta
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