As astronomers push our view of the Universe further and further into the past, their telescopes keep uncovering surprises. Such is the case with a supermassive black hole in CEERS 1019, a distant, very early galaxy.
how early It already existed and formed about 570 million years after the Big Bang. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) caught a glimpse and studied its black hole. Data has also been collected on two other black holes as they were when the Universe was about a billion years old.
These galaxy and black hole discoveries are part of a special observing program with JWST. It’s called the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) Survey. The idea is to get detailed images and spectra of early, distant objects in infrared and mid-infrared light. Objects in the very early universe glow in the ultraviolet and visible light. However, when their light reaches us, it is “stretched” into the infrared range. Because infrared can penetrate even dusty regions, it has the added benefit of being able to see objects that would otherwise remain hidden.
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Finding black holes in the early Universe in early galaxies advances our understanding of this time in cosmic history. It’s just after the Big Bang. For example, this newly discovered CEERS galaxy and its active supermassive black hole surprised astronomers. CEERS 1019 existed at a time when the first galaxies were forming. So they should be small and relatively odd, right? And if there were black holes in this early epoch, they should have relatively small masses (at least for black holes). To the right?
A baby galaxy and its black hole
Well, it’s complicated. It turns out that these black holes have a lower mass. But at least one of them is still larger than it should be. How do we know? According to Steve Finkelstein, PI of the CEERS survey, JWST can study both early galaxies and their black holes. “Until now, the study of objects in the early Universe has been largely theoretical,” he said. “With Webb, not only can we see black holes and galaxies at extreme distances, we can now begin to measure them accurately. That is the tremendous power of this telescope.”
A team of researchers led by Steven Finkelstein and Rebecca Larson of the University of Texas at Austin have identified the most distant active supermassive black hole to date as part of the James Webb Space Telescope’s Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) Survey. The black hole in the CEERS 1019 galaxy existed just over 570 million years after the Big Bang and is far less massive than other black holes previously found in the early Universe. Image credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, Leah Hustak (STScI).
How do CEERS 1019 and its black hole fare? The galaxy itself appears as three bright, discless clumps. So it’s still assembling itself and spawning new stars as it builds its structure. “We’re not used to seeing so much structure in images at these distances,” said CEERS team member Jeyhan Kartaltepe, associate professor of astronomy at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. “A galaxy merger could be partly responsible for boosting activity in this galaxy’s black hole, and that could also lead to increased star formation.”
And this little supermassive black hole? It’s pretty busy picking up gas and has 9 million solar masses. That’s less than some black holes of its time, but still larger than expected. It exists so early in history that it appears to have come into existence very shortly after the creation of the universe, which is fascinating.
Interestingly, the black hole is more akin to Sagittarius A*, the one at the center of the Milky Way. And that’s exciting, even if it’s still puzzling. “Viewing this distant object with this telescope is very similar to looking at data from black holes that exist in galaxies close to our own,” said Rebecca Larson, a recent PhD scientist. UT Austin graduate who led the study of these objects. “There are so many spectral lines to analyze!”
About these spectral lines
While the infrared view shows us the structure of the galaxy, the spectral lines reveal other properties. Spectra can be used, for example, to localize outflow velocities and high-energy temperatures. In the case of CEERS 1019, the spectroscope captures both the black hole and its host galaxy. His data show the black hole’s gas hunger as well as the star formation rate. It will be interesting to see if this scenario plays out in other galaxies in the CEERS survey. In the meantime, however, these early discoveries are preparing astronomers to refine their ideas about black holes and galaxy formation in the early Universe.
The epoch of reionization was the time when the light of the first stars was able to travel through the young universe. At this time, galaxies and black holes began to merge. Credit: Paul Geil/Simon Mutch/The University of Melbourne.
CEERS focuses specifically on these objects as they existed in the epoch of reionization. This is a point in cosmic history when light began to move freely throughout the expanding universe. This light came from the first stars and ionized the gas between stars and galaxies. It also appears that this is the time (and perhaps earlier) that galaxies started to form. The survey data includes the structure of stars (stellar mass), the resulting morphological changes in the galaxies, and the growth of these early black holes. Studying this period is therefore crucial to tracing a timeline of how the Universe formed and evolved through the build-up and transformation of these earliest galaxies. This is one of the main goals of the JWST, which is just completing its first full year of observing the infrared universe.
For more informations
The Webb telescope discovers the most distant active supermassive black hole
Focus on the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) JWST survey.
Webb discovers the most distant active supermassive black hole yet