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Breaking News From the Dawn of the Universe: The Ancestor of a Supermassive Black Hole

An international team of astronomers using archival data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and other space- and ground-based observatories have discovered a unique object in the distant, early 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 so early in the Universe’s history, and had been lurking unnoticed in one of the best-studied areas of the night sky. 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. Credit: NASA, ESA, N. Bartmann

An international effort led by astrophysicists at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, and the Technical University of Denmark, have identified a distant object with properties that lie in-between those of a galaxy and those of a so-called quasar. The object can be seen as the ancestor of a supermassive 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, and it was born relatively soon 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. Simulations had indicated that such objects would exist, but this is the first actual finding.

“The discovered object connects two rare populations of celestial objects, namely dusty starbursts and luminous quasars, and thereby provides a new avenue toward understanding the rapid growth of supermassive black holes in the early universe,” says Seiji Fujimoto, a postdoctoral fellow based at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen.

The discovery can be attributed to the 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 operated jointly by ESA and 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. With its location in space – undisturbed by weather changes, pollution etc. – the telescope can gaze further into the depths of the universe than would have been the case on the ground. And in astronomy, looking further equals being able to observe phenomena which took place at earlier cosmic periods – since light and other types of radiation will have traveled longer to reach us.

The newly found object – named GNz7q by the team – was born 750 million years after the Big Bang which is generally accepted as the beginning of the universe as we know it. Since the Big Bang occurred about 13.8 billion years ago, GNz7q origins in an epoch known as “Cosmic Dawn.”

The mystery of supermassive black holes

The discovery is linked to a specific type of quasars. Quasars, also known as quasi-stellar objects, are extremely luminous objects. Images from Hubble and other advanced telescopes have revealed that quasars occur in the centers of galaxies. The host galaxy for GNz7q is an intensely star-forming galaxy, forming stars at a rate 1,600 times faster than our own galaxy, the Milky WayThe Milky Way is the galaxy that contains the Earth, and is named for its appearance from Earth. It is a barred spiral galaxy that contains an estimated 100-400 billion stars and has a diameter between 150,000 and 200,000 light-years.” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{“attribute”:”data-cmtooltip”, “format”:”html”}]”>Milky Way. The stars, in turn, create and heat cosmic dust, making it glow in infrared to the extent that GNz7q’s host is more luminous in dust emission than any other known object at this period of the Cosmic Dawn.

In the most recent years it has transpired, that luminous quasars are powered by supermassive black holes, with masses ranging from millions to tens of billions of solar masses, surrounded by vast amounts of gas. As the gas falls towards the black hole, it will heat up due to friction which provides the enormous luminous effect.

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). Credit: 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

“Understanding how supermassive black holes form and grow in the early universe has become a major mystery. Theorists have predicted that these black holes undergo an early phase of rapid growth: a dust-reddened compact object emerges from a heavily dust-obscured starburst galaxy, then transitions to an unobscured luminous compact object by expelling the surrounding gas and dust,” explains Associate Professor Gabriel Brammer, Niels Bohr Institute, continuing:

“Although luminous quasars had already been found even at the earliest epochs of the universe, the transition phase of rapid growth of both the black hole and its star-bursting host had not been found at similar epochs. Moreover, the observed properties are in excellent agreement with the theoretical simulations and suggest that GNz7q is the first example of the transitioning, rapid growth phase of black holes at the dusty star core, an ancestor of the later supermassive black hole.”

Both Seiji Fujimoto and Gabriel Brammer are part of the Cosmic Dawn Center (DAWN), a collaboration between Niels Bohr Institute and DTU Space.

Hiding in plain sight

Curiously, GNz7q was found at the center of an intensely studied sky field known as the Hubble GOODS North field.

“This shows how big discoveries can often be hidden right in front of you,” Gabriel Brammer comments.

Finding GNz7q hiding in plain sight was only possible thanks to the uniquely detailed, multi-wavelength datasets available for GOODS North. Without the richness of data, the object would have been easy to overlook, as it lacks the distinguishing features for quasars in the early universe.

“It’s unlikely that discovering GNz7q within the relatively small GOODS-N survey was just “dumb luck”, but rather that the prevalence of such sources may in fact be significantly higher than previously thought,” Brammer adds.

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 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.

“Fully characterizing these objects and probing their evolution and underlying physics in much greater detail will become possible with the James Webb Telescope. Once in regular operation, Webb will have the power to decisively determine how common these rapidly growing black holes truly are,” Seiji Fujimoto concludes.

For more on this discovery, see Hubble Uncovers Bizarre, Evolutionary Missing Link From the Dawn of the Universe.

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 Cosmic Dawn Center (DAWN) is an international center of excellence for astronomy, supported by the Danish National Research Foundation.

DAWN is a collaboration between the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, and at the National Space Institute at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU Space). The center is dedicated to uncovering when and how the first galaxies, stars and black holes formed and evolved in the early Universe, through observations with the prime telescopes of the next decade, as well as through theoretical work and simulations.

Source: SciTechDaily