Skip to main content

The universe may have been filled with supermassive black holes at the dawn of time

This radio image shows two jets shooting out of the center of Cygnus A, a galaxy not too far from our own. A new paper reports discovering a similar object in a much more distant, ancient galaxy. That galaxy has a bright, relatavistic jet emanating from its central supermassive black hole pointed at Earth, making it a blazar.
This radio image shows two jets shooting out of the center of Cygnus A, a galaxy not too far from our own. A new paper reports discovering a similar object in a much more distant, ancient galaxy. That galaxy has a bright, relatavistic jet emanating from its central supermassive black hole pointed at Earth, making it a blazar.
(Image: © NRAO)

Nine hundred million years after the Big Bang, in the epoch of our universe's earliest galaxies, there was already a black hole 1 billion times the size of our sun. That black hole sucked in huge quantities of ionized gas, forming a galactic engine — known as a blazar — that blasted a superhot jet of bright matter into space. On Earth, we can still detect the light from that explosion more than 12 billion years later.

Astronomers had previously discovered evidence of primeval supermassive black holes in slightly younger "radio-loud active galactic nuclei," or RL AGNs. RL AGNs are galaxies with cores that look extra-bright to radio telescopes, which is considered evidence that they contain supermassive black holes. Blazars are a unique type of RL AGN that spit out two narrow jets of "relativistic" (near-light-speed) matter in opposite directions. Those jets emit narrow beams of light at many different wavelengths and have to be pointed right at Earth for us to detect them across such vast distances. This new blazar discovery moves the date of the oldest confirmed supermassive black hole to within the first billion years of the universe's history and suggests there were other, similar black holes in that era that we haven't detected.

"Thanks to our discovery, we are able to say that in the first billion years of life of the universe, there existed a large number of very massive black holes emitting powerful relativistic jets," Silvia Belladitta, a doctoral student at the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in Milan and co-author of a new paper on the blazar, said in a statement.

Related: Twisted physics: 7 mind-blowing findings

The discovery by Belladitta and her co-authors confirms that blazars existed during an epoch of our universe's history known as "reionization" — a period after a long, post-Big Bang dark age when the first stars and galaxies began to form.

And discovering one blazar strongly suggests there were many others, the authors wrote. If only one blazar existed in this early phase of the universe, it would be an extraordinarily lucky break for it to have pointed its narrow, visible beam at Earth. It's much more likely that there were many such blazars pointing in all sorts of directions, and that one of them happened to throw its light our way.

These blazars, the authors wrote, were the seeds of the supermassive black holes that dominate the cores of large galaxies across our universe today — including Sagittarius A*, the relatively quiet supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way.

"Observing a blazar is extremely important. For every discovered source of this type, we know that there must be 100 similar, but most are oriented differently, and are therefore too weak to be seen directly," Belladitta said.

That information helps astrophysicists reconstruct the story of how and when these monster black holes formed.

Originally published on Live Science.

OFFER: Save at least 53% with our latest magazine deal!

With impressive cutaway illustrations that show how things function, and mindblowing photography of the world’s most inspiring spectacles, How It Works represents the pinnacle of engaging, factual fun for a mainstream audience keen to keep up with the latest tech and the most impressive phenomena on the planet and beyond. Written and presented in a style that makes even the most complex subjects interesting and easy to understand, How It Works is enjoyed by readers of all ages.
View Deal

Nine hundred million years after the Big Bang, in the epoch of our universe's earliest galaxies, there was already a black hole 1 billion times the size of our sun. That black hole sucked in huge quantities of ionized gas, forming a galactic engine — known as a blazar — that blasted a superhot jet of bright matter into space. On Earth, we can still detect the light from that explosion more than 12 billion years later.

Astronomers had previously discovered evidence of primeval supermassive black holes in slightly younger "radio-loud active galactic nuclei," or RL AGNs. RL AGNs are galaxies with cores that look extra-bright to radio telescopes, which is considered evidence that they contain supermassive black holes. Blazars are a unique type of RL AGN that spit out two narrow jets of "relativistic" (near-light-speed) matter in opposite directions. Those jets emit narrow beams of light at many different wavelengths and have to be pointed right at Earth for us to detect them across such vast distances. This new blazar discovery moves the date of the oldest confirmed supermassive black hole to within the first billion years of the universe's history and suggests there were other, similar black holes in that era that we haven't detected.

"Thanks to our discovery, we are able to say that in the first billion years of life of the universe, there existed a large number of very massive black holes emitting powerful relativistic jets," Silvia Belladitta, a doctoral student at the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in Milan and co-author of a new paper on the blazar, said in a statement.

Related: Twisted physics: 7 mind-blowing findings

The discovery by Belladitta and her co-authors confirms that blazars existed during an epoch of our universe's history known as "reionization" — a period after a long, post-Big Bang dark age when the first stars and galaxies began to form.

And discovering one blazar strongly suggests there were many others, the authors wrote. If only one blazar existed in this early phase of the universe, it would be an extraordinarily lucky break for it to have pointed its narrow, visible beam at Earth. It's much more likely that there were many such blazars pointing in all sorts of directions, and that one of them happened to throw its light our way.

These blazars, the authors wrote, were the seeds of the supermassive black holes that dominate the cores of large galaxies across our universe today — including Sagittarius A*, the relatively quiet supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way.

"Observing a blazar is extremely important. For every discovered source of this type, we know that there must be 100 similar, but most are oriented differently, and are therefore too weak to be seen directly," Belladitta said.

That information helps astrophysicists reconstruct the story of how and when these monster black holes formed.

Originally published on Live Science.

OFFER: Save at least 53% with our latest magazine deal!

With impressive cutaway illustrations that show how things function, and mindblowing photography of the world’s most inspiring spectacles, How It Works represents the pinnacle of engaging, factual fun for a mainstream audience keen to keep up with the latest tech and the most impressive phenomena on the planet and beyond. Written and presented in a style that makes even the most complex subjects interesting and easy to understand, How It Works is enjoyed by readers of all ages.
View Deal

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

  • rod
    Admin said:
    As the universe cooled in the era after the Big Bang, a supermassive black hole had already formed in the center of a galaxy, forming a giant engine of energy we can still see today.

    The universe may have been filled with supermassive black holes at the dawn of time : Read more

    The object has a redshift where z > 6 and from the links provided we read "From these new LBT observations, still under development, we also estimate that the central engine that powers PSO J0309+27 is a black hole with a mass equal to about 1 billion times the mass of our sun. Thanks to our discovery, we are able to say that in the first billion years of life of the universe, there existed a large number of very massive black holes emitting powerful relativistic jets. This result places tight constraints on the theoretical models that try to explain the origin of these huge black holes in our universe," concludes Belladitta."

    The NASA ADS Abstract states constraints too "Larger samples of blazars will be necessary to better constrain these estimates.", The first blazar observed at z>6 From the cosmology calculators COSMOLOGY CALCULATORS and default settings with z=6 (using flat model), the age at redshift 6 is 0.942E+9 years after the Big Bang, light-time to Earth is 12.779E+9 years, thus the observation is from light that traveled nearly 13E+9 light-years distance to reach the telescopes on Earth, and comoving radial distance is 27.484E+9 light-years away, something telescopes cannot see where the object *may be* today. It is important to define constraints on the Big Bang model and origin of the universe and structure formation like supermassive BHs, primordial neutrinos, Population III stars, etc. Observations and interpretations like this potential supermassive BH *evolving* <= 1E+9 years after the Big Bang, show present processes operating in the universe and present star formation rate(s) cannot explain the origin of the universe. The universe had a distinct beginning, and other surveys like Spitzer show star formation reached cosmic high noon near redshift 3.0 and is slowing down, the same for formation of supermassive BHs shortly after the BB. The 2nd Law - entropy is winning, slowly bringing the universe to an end :)
    Reply