James Webb captures the most distant black hole ever seen

James Webb Space Telescope has captured the most distant supermassive black hole ever seen, just 570 million years after the Big Bang
A panoramic view of over 100,000 galaxies known as the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) Survey. Credit: NASA

James Webb Space Telescope has detected the most distant active supermassive black hole to date. The galaxy hosting the ancient black hole, CEERS 1019, formed early in the history of the universe, just 570 million years after the Big Bang.

Active supermassive black hole at the center of CEERS 1019 is unusual. Not only for its age and distance but also for its mass, being only 9 million times the mass of the Sun. Typically, most supermassive black holes in the early universe weigh over 1 billion solar masses, making them brighter and easier to detect.

CEERS 1019’s black hole

The relatively small size of the black hole at the center of CEERS 1019 is a true enigma. According to a statement (ref.) from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, “it is still difficult to explain how it formed so early after the beginning of the universe”. Astronomers have long suspected that smaller black holes formed in the early days of the universe, but these observations are the first to see them in such detail.

“Researchers have long known that there must be lower-mass black holes in the early universe. James Webb is the first telescope capable of capturing them so clearly” said Dale Kocevski of Colby College in Waterville, who led one of the three new studies (ref.). “Now we think that lower-mass black holes could be everywhere, waiting to be discovered”.

Black hole in CEERS 1019 was discovered using data collected by James Webb as part of the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey (CEERS). Research program is designed to test and validate methods for peering far back into the history of the universe in a region of space between the constellations of Ursa Major and Bootes. The data collected for the survey has already excited astronomers.

11 primordial galaxies

“Until now, research on objects in the early universe was largely theoretical” said Steven Finkelstein, an astronomer at the University of Texas who leads the CEERS Survey and co-author of one of the studies. “With James Webb, not only can we see black holes and galaxies at extreme distances, but now we can begin to measure them precisely. This is the immense power of this telescope.”

James Webb was able to gather a large amount of spectral data on CEERS 1019. The electromagnetic signatures reveal the galaxy’s chemical composition, mass, and other properties. The data shows that the galaxy is actively producing new stars, perhaps as a result of a merger with another galaxy that is fueling activity in the central black hole of CEERS 1019.

So far, 11 galaxies have been discovered using James Webb’s CEERS survey data. All of these galaxies are believed to have formed between 470 and 675 million years after the Big Bang. The data produced from studying these galaxies could revolutionize astronomers’ understanding of how stars and galaxies formed and evolved throughout cosmic history.

“I am overwhelmed by the amount of highly detailed spectra of remote galaxies that Webb has returned,” said Pablo Arrabal Haro of NOIRLab, lead author of one of the studies using the CEERS survey. “This data is absolutely incredible“.

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