New Evidence Suggests Some Early Supermassive Black Holes Formed During the Direct Collapse of a Gas Cloud


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Combined data from Spitzer, Hubble and the Chandra X-ray Observatory were used to create this illustration of the direct collapse of a gas cloud into a supermassive black hole. Credit: NASA/Chandra/Spitzer/Hubble/ESA.

The seed out of which some of these mysterious, lurking monsters were born

Space news (astrophysics: black hole formation: early black holes) – supermassive black holes scattered around the observable universe – 

Astronomers believe and data suggests at the center of nearly all large galaxies, including the Milky Way, lurks a supermassive black hole with millions and even billions of times the mass of our sun. Gigantic black holes that in some cases formed less than a billion years after the birth of the cosmos. For the first time, they have uncovered evidence suggesting some of these early supermassive black holes formed directly during the collapse of a giant gas cloud. A finding making astronomers rethink current theories on the formation of these enigmatic, invisible monsters.


This illustration shows a supermassive black hole at the core of a galaxy far, far away. Light skimming past the event horizon (black area) is stretched and distorted like light hitting a fun house mirror.Credits: NASA, ESA, and D. Coe, J. Anderson, and R. van der Marel (STScI)

“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.”


This Hubble Space Telescope’s spectrograph image shows a zig-zag pattern representing rapidly rotating gas (880, 000 mph) within 26 light-years of the supermassive black hole at the core of galaxy M84. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble.

Intermediate steps like the formation of a supermassive star and its subsequent destruction during a supernova. Evidence to date suggests black holes are formed during this process and then supermassive black holes are produced by mergers between black holes. But this new finding suggests things get a little weirder than first thought. Maybe things are weirder than we could ever imagine. It could be the first supermassive black holes seeds were intermediate mass black holes, monsters in the 20,000 solar mass range. Watch this YouTube video on black hole formation.


Within the inset region in this composite Hubble and Chandra X-ray image is shown the Monster of the Milky Way -Sagittarius A- A 4 million solar mass supermassive black hole astronomers believe lurks at the core of the Milky Way’s nuclear star cluster. Credit: NASA/ESA/Chandra/Hubble.

Imagine the volume of a gas cloud capable of contracting directly into an object tens times, or more, the mass of Sol. Black hole seeds built up by drawing in cold gas and dust appear to have formed within the first billion years of the cosmos. Maybe once they confirm the existence of the two black hole seeds they think they detected. They can try to get some data on the mass of these early black hole seeds. At the moment, no mass data is available. Watch this YouTube video on black hole seeds.

This artist’s conception of an estimated 20 million solar mass supermassive black hole at the core of one of the smallest, densest galaxies ever discovered during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. 

The forming of a supermassive black hole directly from the collapse of a massive cloud of gas seems even weirder than the observed formation process for supermassive black holes. But we’re not in Kansas anymore, so anything could theoretically be possible. I am certain, things are even weirder than we can imagine.

This artist’s conception of two supermassive holes entwined in a death spiral destined to end in the birth of a bigger version of the two monsters is called WISE J233237.05-505643.5. At 3.8 billion light-years this is one of the most distant suspected supermassive black holes binary systems detected. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI.

“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.”

A black hole located in the middle of the spiral galaxy NGC 4178
The inset image in this Chandra X-ray Observatory image of spiral galaxy NGC 4178 shows an X-ray source at the location of a suspected 200,000 solar mass supermassive black hole. This monster is one of the lowest mass supermassive black holes ever detected at the core of a galaxy. Astronomers are studying this supermassive black hole closely since its also located in a galaxy not expected to host such a monster. All of the data collected seems to indicate a slightly different origin, which makes astronomers a little curious. Drredit: NASA/ESA/ Chandra/.

The team used computer models of the formation of black hole seeds combined with new techniques and methods to identify two possible candidates for early supermassive black holes in long-exposure Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer images. The data collected on these two candidates matches the theoretical profile expected and estimates of their age suggest they formed when the cosmos was less than a billion years old. But more study is needed to verify the data and existence of these theoretical early black hole seeds.


Astronomers recently detected the Monster of the Milky Way -Sagittarius A- snacking on material passing too close, possibly an asteroid. The resulting X-ray flares detected in September 2013 were the largest ever recorded during the human journey to the beginning of space and time, so far. Credit: NASA/ESA/Chandra.

“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.”


Astronomers combined X-ray data from Chandra with microwave and visible images to reveal jets and radio-emitting lobes emanating from the 55 million solar mass central supermassive black hole in galaxy Centaurus A (NGC 5128). Credit: NASA/ESA/Chandra.

What’s next?

The team plans additional observations to see if these two candidates have other properties of black hole seeds as computer simulations predict. Real evidence to prove or disprove their early supermassive black hole formation theory might have to wait for a few years. Until the James Webb Space Telescope, European Extremely Large Telescope and other assets come online. The team and other astronomers are currently designing the theoretical framework needed to interpret future data and pinpoint the existence of some of the first supermassive black holes ever to exist. Watch this YouTube video on the jet of Centaurus A.


This optical/radio composite image shows the vast radio-emitting lobes of Centaurus A in orange extending nearly a million light-years from the galaxy. The image of the right here shows the inner 4.16 light-years of the jet and counter-jet of this estimated 55 million solar mass monster. Credit: NASA.

Read the scientific paper released on the first identification of black hole seeds here

Take the space voyage of NASA.

Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope.

Learn more about supermassive black holes here.

Learn more about the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy.

Learn more about the things the Hubble Space Telescope has shown us about our universe here.

Learn more about the European Extremely Large Telescope.

Learn about the things the Chandra X-ray Observatory has taught us about the cosmos.

Read about the adventures of the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Explore NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory here.

Learn more about the Milky Way’s nuclear star cluster, the densest star cluster in the galaxy.

Read about the next generation Giant Magellan Telescope.

Learn more about two dancing, merging supermassive black holes astronomers are watching closely.