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JWST may have found the oldest black hole in the universe

The JWST’s discovery of the universe’s oldest black holes is providing astronomers with some very significant clues about how black holes came into being.

The JWST (James Webb Space Telescope) has spotted the oldest black hole ever seen, an olden monster with the mass equivalent to 1.6 million suns lurking 13 billion years in the universe’s past. JWST, whose cameras empower it to look back in time to our universe’s beginnings, spotted the SMBH (supermassive black hole) at the center of the infant galaxy GN-z11 just 440 million years post the beginning of the universe. This SMBH isn’t alone, it’s one of innumerable black holes that gorged themselves to scary scales during the cosmic dawn — the epoch about 100 million years after the Big Bang, when the young universe began glowing for a billion years.

How the cosmic whirlpools ballooned in scale so quickly after the beginning of the universe is still not clear. But hunting for an answer could help explain how today’s SMBHs — which anchor whole galaxies including our galaxy Milky Way — grew to such baffling sizes. The researchers published their conclusions earlier this year to the preprint database arXiv, but the research is still to be peer-reviewed.

Black holes in the early universe “can’t grow quietly and gently as many black holes do in the local [present-day] universe,” lead-author Roberto Maiolino (a University of Cambridge professor of astrophysics), told Live Science. “They must experience some peculiar birth or formation, and some peculiar growth.”

Astronomers have till recently believed that black holes come into being as a result of the collapse of giant stars and grow by ceaselessly devouring gas, dust, stars and other black holes. As they feast, friction causes the material vanishing into the black holes’ maws to heat up, and they beam light that the telescopes can detect — turning them into so-called AGN (active galactic nuclei). The most extreme active galactic nuclei are quasars, SMBH that are billions of times weightier than our sun and shed their gaseous cocoons with light blasts trillions of times more luminous compared to the brightest of stars.

Because light moves at a constant speed through the vacuum of space, the deeper that researchers look into the universe, the more remote light they get to intercept and the further back in time they get to observe. To spot the black hole in the study discussed here, the astronomers perused the sky with two infrared cameras — Near Infrared Camera and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) of the JWST — and used built-in spectrographs of the cameras to deconstruct the light into its component frequencies. By breaking down these faint glimmers from earliest years of the universe, they discovered an unexpected spike among the frequencies contained within the light — a vital sign that the hot material around a black hole was emitting out faint traces of light across the universe.

The most widespread explanations for how these early black holes grew so quickly are that they came from multiple mergers between clumps of black holes and stars or that they formed from the sudden collapse of giant gas clouds. Nevertheless, astronomers still haven’t ruled out that some of these black holes could have been formed by assumed “primordial” black holes, thought to be created just moments after the universe began or according to some theories even earlier.

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