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Ancient SMBH poses challenge to our understanding of the early Universe

The Big Bang theory may not be threatened yet, but astrophysicists definitely have some explaining to do.


Discovery of an ancient supermassive black hole (SMBH) by scientists has posed a major challenge for astrophysicists. The birth of supermassive black holes still remain a mystery, mainly those that existed early in the life of the Universe. Nonetheless, one notion is that they formed from collapsing gas clouds.

At the center of virtually every galaxy in the universe sits a monster: a black hole with a mass millions or billions of times heavier than our Sun. When and how these massive objects formed is still an open question in the astrophysics community. In a paper published recently in Nature Astronomy, scientists reported about the discovery of above mentioned ancient SMBH. This particular SMBH existed very early in life of the Universe. While some over enthusiastic people have claimed that the observation of these gargantuan black holes has invalidated the theory of the Big Bang, this is a hurried conclusion. Nonetheless, it is undoubtedly true that the existence of very early SMBHs will require astronomers to rethink some things.

Supermassive black holes (SMBHs)

Most black holes come into being when remnants of a very massive star dies in a supernova explosion. Stellar-mass black holes are characteristically in the range of 5 to 100 times the mass of our Sun. In stark contrast, the SMBHs at the centers of galaxies are much much bigger. The black hole at the center of our galaxy the Milky Way, named Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), has a mass equal to about 4.3 million suns. But even that in nothing compared to the heaviest known black hole: TON 618, present at the center of a quasar, weighs equivalent to staggering 66 billion solar masses.

Just how these colossal black holes were formed remains a mystery still today. While one notion is that separate stellar-mass black holes combined, it is difficult to believe that there has been sufficient time since the Universe began 13.8 billion years ago for ample mergers to have happened to account for the observed distribution of SMBHs. And it’s even harder to envisage that giant black holes formed early in the Universe.

James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) weighs in

JWST is capable of imaging ancient galaxies, ones that existed as early as a few hundred million years after the Universe came into being. In the above-mentioned paper, astronomers combined a James Webb Space Telescope observation with separate data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory to identify a far away galaxy containing a supermassive black hole.

Astronomers were immensely surprised when they found out that the mass of the said black hole at the center of the ancient galaxy was approx. the same as the total mass of the stars in that galaxy. Point to be noted here is that SMBH at the center of the Milky Way is only about 0.1% the mass of the entire galaxy. As this particular ancient SMBH formed so quickly after the Universe began, it cannot have been the resultant of the merging of stellar-mass black holes. Instead, another mechanism must have created it.


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