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NASA telescopes find clues for how giant black holes formed so quickly

Last Updated on Wednesday, 25 May 2016 14:17
Published on Wednesday, 25 May 2016 14:17

Using data from three of NASA's Great Observatories, astronomers have the found the best evidence yet for cosmic seeds in the early universe that should grow into supermassive black holes.

Researchers combined data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, Hubble Space Telescope, and Spitzer Space Telescope to identify these possible black hole seeds. They discuss their findings in a paper that will appear in an upcoming issue of Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Black Seed images smallThis artist's illustration depicts a possible "seed" for the formation of a supermassive black hole. The inset boxes contain Chandra (top) and Hubble (bottom) images of one of two candidate seeds, where the properties in the data matched those predicted by sophisticated models produced by researchers of the direct-collapse mechanism. X-ray Credit: NASA/CXC/Scuola Normale Superiore/F. Pacucci, et al. Optical Credit: NASA/STScI. Illustration Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss. Click for a full size image "Our discovery, if confirmed, explains how these monster black holes were born," said Fabio Pacucci of Scuola Normale Superiore (SNS) in Pisa, Italy, who led the study. "We found evidence that supermassive black hole seeds can form directly from the collapse of a giant gas cloud, skipping any intermediate steps."

Scientists believe a supermassive black holes lies in the centre of nearly all large galaxies, including our own Milky Way. They have found that some of these supermassive black holes, which contain millions or even billions of times the mass of the Sun, formed less than a billion years after the start of the universe in the Big Bang.

One theory suggests black hole seeds were built up by pulling in gas from their surroundings, and by mergers of smaller black holes, a process that should take much longer than found for these quickly forming black holes.

These new findings suggest instead that some of the first black holes formed directly when a cloud of gas collapsed, bypassing any other intermediate phases, such as the formation and subsequent destruction of a massive star.

"There is a lot of controversy over which path these black holes take," said co-author Andrea Ferrara, also of SNS. "Our work suggests we are narrowing in on an answer, where the black holes start big and grow at the normal rate, rather than starting small and growing at a very fast rate."

The researchers used computer models of black hole seeds combined with a new method to select candidates for these objects from long-exposure images from Chandra, Hubble, and Spitzer.

The team found two strong candidates for black hole seeds. Both of these matched the theoretical profile in the infrared data, including being very red objects, and also emit X-rays detected with Chandra. Estimates of their distance suggest they may have been formed when the universe was less than a billion years old

"Black hole seeds are extremely hard to find and confirming their detection is very difficult," said Andrea Grazian, a co-author from the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy. "However, we think our research has uncovered the two best candidates to date."

The team plans to obtain further observations in X-rays and the infrared to check whether these objects have more of the properties expected for black hole seeds. Upcoming observatories, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope will aid in future studies by detecting the light from more distant and smaller black holes. Scientists are currently building the theoretical framework needed to interpret the upcoming data, with the aim of finding the first black holes in the universe.

"As scientists, we cannot say at this point that our model is 'the one'," said Pacucci. "What we really believe is that our model is able to reproduce the observations without requiring unreasonable assumptions."

 


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Further information

 

The new work appears in "First Identification of Direct Collapse Black Hole Candidates in the Early Universe in CANDELS/GOODS-SNotes for editors", Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

A preprint of the paper is available on arXiv.

 


Notes for editors

 

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program while the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra's science and flight operations.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission, whose science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado.

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 4000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

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