Using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), researchers detected the most distant active supermassive black hole to date. CEERS 1019 was formed about 570 million years after the Big Bang, and its black hole is less massive than any other found in the early universe.
In addition to the black hole in CEERS 1019, the researchers discovered two other black holes that were 1 billion and 1.1 billion years after the great bang. JWST also discovered eleven galaxies that existed between 470 and 675 million years ago. The evidence came from the JWST’s Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) Survey, which was conducted by Steven Finkelstein, an astronomy professor at The University of Texas in Austin. The program combines JWST’s very detailed near- and mid-infrared images and data known as spectra, all of which were used to make these discoveries.
“Looking at this distant object with this telescope is a lot like looking at data from black holes that exist in galaxies near our own,” said Rebecca Larson, the study’s lead author and a recent Ph.D. graduate from UT Austin. “There are so many spectral lines to analyze!”
These findings have been published in multiple preliminary papers in a special edition of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
We’re not used to seeing so much structure in images at these distances. A galaxy merger could be partly responsible for fueling the activity in this galaxy’s black hole, and that could also lead to increased star formation.Jeyhan Kartaltepe
CEERS 1019 is unique not only for how long it has lived but also for how light its black hole is. It has a mass of roughly 9 million solar masses, which is significantly less than previous black holes discovered in the early universe by other telescopes. These behemoths often have more than a billion times the mass of the sun – and they are simpler to spot since they are much brighter. The black hole within CEERS 1019 is 4.6 million times the mass of the sun, similar to the black hole at the heart of our Milky Way galaxy.
This black hole, however smaller, existed so much earlier that it is still difficult to explain how it formed so soon after the universe began. Smaller black holes must have existed earlier in the universe, but it wasn’t until JWST began watching that researchers were able to make unambiguous detections.
The scientists could not only distinguish which emissions in the spectrum are from the black hole and which are from its host galaxy, but they could also determine how much gas the black hole is consuming and the pace at which stars form in its host galaxy.
The team found this galaxy is ingesting as much gas as it can while also churning out new stars. They turned to the images to explore why that might be. Visually, CEERS 1019 appears as three bright clumps, not a single circular disk.
“We’re not used to seeing so much structure in images at these distances,” said CEERS team member Jeyhan Kartaltepe, an associate professor of astronomy at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. “A galaxy merger could be partly responsible for fueling the activity in this galaxy’s black hole, and that could also lead to increased star formation.”
These are only the first groundbreaking findings from the CEERS Survey.
“Until now, research about objects in the early universe was largely theoretical,” Finkelstein told the BBC. “With Webb, we can not only see black holes and galaxies at great distances, but we can also begin to accurately measure them.” That is the incredible power of this telescope.”
JWST data could be used to explain how early black holes developed in the future, altering researchers’ estimates of how black holes grew and evolved in the first several hundred million years of the universe’s history.
The James Webb Space Telescope is a collaborative international effort directed by NASA and its partners, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.
More Extremely Distant Black Holes and Galaxies
The CEERS Survey is expansive, and there is much more to explore. Team member Dale Kocevski of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and the team quickly spotted another pair of small black holes in the data. The first, within galaxy CEERS 2782, was the easiest to pick out. There isn’t any dust obscuring JWST’s view of it, so researchers could immediately determine when its black hole existed in the history of the universe — only 1.1 billion years after the Big Bang. The second black hole, in galaxy CEERS 746, existed slightly earlier, 1 billion years after the Big Bang. Its bright accretion disk, a ring made up of gas and dust that encircles its supermassive black hole, is still partially clouded by dust.
“The central black hole is visible, but the presence of dust suggests it might lie within a galaxy that is also furiously pumping out stars,” he stated.
The two other recently identified black holes (in galaxies CEERS 2782 and CEERS 746) are also “lightweights” when compared to previously known supermassive black holes at these distances. They are just around 10 million times the mass of the sun.
“Researchers have long suspected that there must have been lower mass black holes in the early universe.” “Webb is the first observatory that can capture them so clearly,” Kocevski said. “Now we think that lower mass black holes might be all over the place, waiting to be discovered.”
Before JWST, all three black holes were too faint to be detected.
“With other telescopes, these targets look like ordinary star-forming galaxies, not active supermassive black holes,” Finkelstein said.
The exquisite spectra of the JWST also enabled these researchers to calculate precise distances to, and thus ages of, galaxies in the early universe. Pablo Arrabal Haro of the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab and Seiji Fujimoto, a UT Austin postdoctoral researcher and Hubble fellow, uncovered 11 galaxies that existed between 470 million and 675 million years after the Big Bang. Not only are they exceedingly distant, but the discovery of so many brilliant galaxies is noteworthy. Theoretically, JWST would find fewer galaxies than are now detected at these distances.