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Astronomers Detect Supermassive Black Hole Precursor – Could Be Evolutionary “Missing Link”

This is an artist’s illustration of a supermassive black hole that is inside the dust-shrouded core of a vigorously star-forming “starburst” galaxy. It will eventually become an extremely bright quasar once the dust is gone. The research team believes that the object, discovered in a Hubble deep-sky survey, could be the evolutionary “missing link” between quasars and starburst galaxies. The dusty black hole dates back to only 750 million years after the big bang. Credit: NASA, ESA, N. Bartmann

An international team of astronomers has discovered a unique object in the distant, early Universe that is a crucial link between star-forming galaxies and the emergence of the earliest supermassive black holes. It was found using archival data from the NASAEstablished in 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent agency of the United States Federal Government that succeeded the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). It is responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. It's vision is "To discover and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity."” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>NASA/ESA Hubble Space TelescopeThe Hubble Space Telescope (often referred to as Hubble or HST) is one of NASA's Great Observatories and was launched into low Earth orbit in 1990. It is one of the largest and most versatile space telescopes in use and features a 2.4-meter mirror and four main instruments that observe in the ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. It was named after astronomer Edwin Hubble.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>Hubble Space Telescope and other space- and ground-based observatories. This object is the first of its kind to be discovered so early in the Universe’s history and had been lurking unnoticed in one of the best-studied areas of the night sky.

Ever since these objects were discovered at distances corresponding to a time only 750 million years after the Big Bang,[1] astronomers have struggled to understand the emergence of supermassive black holes in the early Universe. Rapidly growing black holes in dusty, early star-forming galaxies are predicted by theories and computer simulations but until now they had not been observed. Now, however, astronomers have reported the discovery of an object — which they named GNz7q — that is believed to be the first such rapidly growing black holeA black hole is a place in space where the pull of gravity is so strong not even light can escape it. Astronomers classify black holes into three categories by size: miniature, stellar, and supermassive black holes. Miniature black holes could have a mass smaller than our Sun and supermassive black holes could have a mass equivalent to billions of our Sun.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>black hole to be found in the early Universe. Archival Hubble data from the Advanced Camera for Surveys helped the team study the compact ultraviolet emission from the black hole’s accretion disc and to determine that GNz7q existed just 750 million years after the Big BangThe Big Bang is the leading cosmological model explaining how the universe as we know it began roughly 13.8 billion years ago.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>Big Bang.

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“Our analysis suggests that GNz7q is the first example of a rapidly-growing black hole in the dusty core of a starburst galaxy at an epoch close to the earliest supermassive black hole known in the Universe,” explains Seiji Fujimoto, an astronomer at the Niels Bohr Institute of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and lead author of the paper describing this discovery. “The object’s properties across the electromagnetic spectrum are in excellent agreement with predictions from theoretical simulations.”

GNz7q in the Hubble GOODS-North field

An international team of astronomers using archival data from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and other space- and ground-based observatories have discovered a unique object in the distant universe that is a crucial link between young star-forming galaxies and the earliest supermassive black holes. This object is the first of its kind to be discovered when the universe was only 750 million years old. It had been lurking unnoticed in one of the best-studied areas of the night sky. The object, which is referred to as GNz7q, is the red dot in the center of the image of the Hubble Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey-North (GOODS-North). Credits: NASA, ESA, Garth Illingworth (UC Santa Cruz), Pascal Oesch (UC Santa Cruz, Yale), Rychard Bouwens (LEI), I. Labbe (LEI), Cosmic Dawn Center/Niels Bohr Institute/University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Current theories predict that supermassive black holes begin their lives in the dust-shrouded cores of vigorously star-forming “starburst” galaxies before expelling the surrounding gas and dust and emerging as extremely luminous quasars. Whilst they are extremely rare, examples of both dusty starburst galaxies and luminous quasars have been detected in the early Universe. The team believes that GNz7q could be the “missing link” between these two classes of objects.

“GNz7q provides a direct connection between these two rare populations and provides a new avenue towards understanding the rapid growth of supermassive black holes in the early days of the Universe,” continued Fujimoto. “Our discovery is a precursor of the supermassive black holes we observe at later epochs.”

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Whilst other interpretations of the team’s data cannot be completely ruled out, the observed properties of GNz7q are in strong agreement with theoretical predictions. GNz7q’s host galaxy is forming stars at the rate of 1600 solar masses of stars per year[2] and GNz7q itself appears bright at ultraviolet wavelengths but very faint at X-ray wavelengths. The team have interpreted this — along with the host galaxy’s brightness at infrared wavelengths — to suggest that GNz7q is harbors a rapidly growing black hole still obscured by the dusty core of its accretion disc at the center of the star-forming host galaxy.


As well as GNz7q’s importance to the understanding of the origins of supermassive black holes, this discovery is noteworthy for its location in the Hubble GOODS North field, one of the most highly scrutinized areas of the night sky.[3]

GNz7q in the Hubble GOODS-North Field

GNz7q is shown here in the center of the cutout from the Hubble GOODS-North field. Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth (University of California, Santa Cruz), P. Oesch (University of California, Santa Cruz; Yale University), R. Bouwens and I. Labbé (Leiden University), and the Science Team, S. Fujimoto et al. (Cosmic Dawn Center [DAWN] and University of Copenhagen)

“GNz7q is a unique discovery that was found just at the center of a famous, well-studied sky field — showing that big discoveries can often be hidden just in front of you,” commented Gabriel Brammer, another astronomer from the Niels Bohr Institute of the University of Copenhagen and a member of the team behind this result. “It’s unlikely that discovering GNz7q within the relatively small GOODS-N survey area was just ‘dumb luck’ rather the prevalence of such sources may in fact be significantly higher than previously thought.”

Finding GNz7q hiding in plain sight was only possible thanks to the uniquely detailed, multi-wavelength datasets available for GOODS-North. Without this richness of data GNz7q would have been easy to overlook, as it lacks the distinguishing features usually used to identify quasars in the early Universe. The team now hopes to systematically search for similar objects using dedicated high-resolution surveys and to take advantage of the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope’s spectroscopic instruments to study objects such as GNz7q in unprecedented detail.

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“Fully characterizing these objects and probing their evolution and underlying physics in much greater detail will become possible with the James Webb Space TelescopeThe James Webb Space Telescope (JWST or Webb) is an orbiting infrared observatory that will complement and extend the discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope. It covers longer wavelengths of light, with greatly improved sensitivity, allowing it to see inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today as well as looking further back in time to observe the first galaxies that formed in the early universe.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>James Webb Space Telescope,” concluded Fujimoto. “Once in regular operation, Webb will have the power to decisively determine how common these rapidly growing black holes truly are.”


  1. While light travels imperceptibly quickly in day-to-day life, the vast distances in astronomy mean that as astronomers look at increasingly distant objects, they are also looking backward in time. For example, light from the Sun takes around 8.3 minutes to reach Earth, meaning that we view the Sun as it was 8.3 minutes ago. The most distant objects are the furthest back in time, meaning that astronomers studying very distant galaxies are able to study the earliest periods of the Universe.
  2. This does not mean that 1600 Sun-like stars are produced each year in GNz7q’s host galaxy, but rather that a variety of stars are formed each year with a total mass 1600 times that of the Sun.
  3. GOODS — the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey — is an astronomical survey that combines multi-wavelength observations from some of the most capable telescopes ever built, including Hubble, ESA’s Herschel and XMM-Newton space telescopes, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory, and powerful ground-based telescopes.

For more on this discovery:

Reference: “A dusty compact object bridging galaxies and quasars at cosmic dawn” by S. Fujimoto, G. B. Brammer, D. Watson, G. E. Magdis, V. Kokorev, T. R. Greve, S. Toft, F. Walter, R. Valiante, M. Ginolfi, R. Schneider, F. Valentino, L. Colina, M. Vestergaard, R. Marques-Chaves, J. P. U. Fynbo, M. Krips, C. L. Steinhardt, I. Cortzen, F. Rizzo and P. A. Oesch, 13 April 2022, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04454-1


The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

These results have been published in Nature.

The international team of astronomers in this study consists of S. Fujimoto (Cosmic Dawn Center [DAWN] and Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), G. B. Brammer (DAWN and Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), D. Watson (DAWN and Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), G. E. Magdis (DAWN, DTU-Space at the Technical University of Denmark, and Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark), V. Kokorev (DAWN and Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), T. R. Greve (DAWN and DTU-Space, Technical University of Denmark, Denmark), S. Toft (DAWN and Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), F. Walter ( DAWN, Denmark, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Germany, and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, USA), R. Valiante (INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, Rome, Italy), M. Ginolfi (European Southern Observatory, Garching, Germany), R. Schneider (INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, Rome, Italy and Dipartimento di Fisica, Universita´ di Roma La Sapienza, Rome, Italy), F. Valentino (DAWN and Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), L. Colina (DAWN, Copenhagen, Denmark and Centro de Astrobiología (CAB, CSIC-INTA), Madrid, Spain), M. Vestergaard (Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Steward Observatory, University of Arizona, USA), R. Marques-Chaves (Geneva Observatory, University of Geneva, Switzerland), J. P. U. Fynbo (DAWN and Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), M. Krips (IRAM, Domaine Universitaire, Saint-Martin-d’Hères, France), C. L. Steinhardt (DAWN and Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), I. Cortzen (IRAM, Domaine Universitaire, Saint-Martin-d’Hères, France), F. Rizzo (DAWN and Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), and P. A. Oesch (DAWN, Copenhagen, Denmark and Geneva Observatory, University of Geneva, Switzerland).

Source: SciTechDaily