James Webb Space Telescope may have found the oldest black hole in the universe

a dark black hole surrounded by glowing orange gases
Illustration of a black hole. (Image credit: Getty Images/Mark Garlick/Science Photo Library)

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has spotted the oldest black hole ever seen, an ancient monster with the mass of 1.6 million suns lurking 13 billion years in the universe's past. 

The James Webb Space Telescope, whose cameras enable it to look back in time to our universe's beginnings, spotted the supermassive black hole at the center of the infant galaxy GN-z11 just 440 million years after the universe began.

And the space-time rupture isn't alone, it's one of countless black holes that gorged themselves to terrifying scales during the cosmic dawn — the period about 100 million years after the Big Bang when the young universe began glowing for a billion years.

Related: This supermassive black hole is the most distant ever seen in X-rays

How the cosmic whirlpools ballooned in scale so rapidly after the universe began isn't clear. But looking for an answer could help explain how today's supermassive black holes — which anchor entire galaxies including our Milky Way — grew to such mind-boggling sizes. The researchers published their findings earlier this year to the preprint database arXiv, but the research has not yet been peer-reviewed.

Black holes in the early universe "can't grow quietly and gently as many black holes do in the local [present-day] universe," lead-author Roberto Maiolino, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, told Live Science. "They must experience some peculiar birth or formation, and some peculiar growth."

Closer to the present-day, astronomers believe black holes are born from the collapse of giant stars. But however they come to be, they grow by ceaselessly gorging on gas, dust, stars and other black holes. As they feast, friction causes the material spiraling into the black holes' maws to heat up, and they emit light that can be detected by telescopes — turning them into so-called active galactic nuclei (AGN).

The most extreme AGN are quasars, supermassive black holes that are billions of times heavier than the sun and shed their gaseous cocoons with light blasts trillions of times more luminous than the brightest stars.

Because light travels at a fixed speed through the vacuum of space, the deeper that scientists look into the universe, the more remote light they intercept and the further back in time they see. To spot the black hole in the new study, the astronomers scanned the sky with two infrared cameras — the JWST's Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) and Near Infrared Camera — and used the cameras' built-in spectrographs to break down the light into its component frequencies. 

By deconstructing these faint glimmers from the universe's earliest years, they found an unexpected spike among the frequencies contained within the light — a key sign that the hot material around a black hole was beaming out faint traces of light across the universe.

The most popular explanations for how these early black holes grew so fast are that they formed from the sudden collapse of giant gas clouds or that they came from many mergers between clumps of stars and black holes. 

Nonetheless, astronomers haven't ruled out that some of these black holes could have been seeded by hypothesized "primordial" black holes, thought to be created moments after — and in some theories even before — the universe began.

"It's not so clear that [direct collapse] is the only way to make a black hole, because you need some special circumstances for it to happen," Maiolino said. "You need it to be a pristine cloud, yet to be enriched by heavy elements made by the first stars, and one that is fairly massive — from 10,000 to up to a million solar masses."

To prevent such a cloud from cooling too quickly and collapsing into massive stars first, it must also be beamed with ultraviolet light, likely from a nearby galaxy or black hole.

"So you need this peculiar condition where the cloud is not getting enriched [by absorbing exploded star material], but is also next to another galaxy which is producing a lot of photons," Maiolino said. "So we're not necessarily looking for a single scenario, actually two or more of them could be at play."

Originally published on LiveScience.com.

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Ben Turner
Live Science Staff Writer

Ben Turner is a U.K. based staff writer at Live Science. He covers physics and astronomy, among other topics like weird animals and climate change. He graduated from University College London with a degree in particle physics before training as a journalist. When he's not writing, Ben enjoys reading literature, playing the guitar and embarrassing himself with chess.

  • Adoni Yannop
    Admin said:
    The James Webb Space Telescope's discovery of the universe's oldest black holes is giving astronomers some vital clues for how they came to be.

    James Webb Space Telescope may have found the oldest black hole in the universe : Read more
    Scientists may finally know where the biggest, oldest black holes in the universe came from.
    OK so what does it matter? How does knowing even the age of the Universe itself make a difference?

    Well!!): First off): Scientists/Astrophysicists will never know where the biggest oldest black hole in the universe came from because of their misassumption that universe was created by the absurd Big Bang “Singularity” from a volume of less than an atom to its present size and form by the absurd impossible “Big Bang Singularity’s” miraculous release of energy that miraculously pulled protons and antiprotons Out OF Vacuum” which then immediately annihilated each other with no net increase in matter particles!!

    But if astrophysicists begin to consider my assertion that neutron indestructible permeable sacs evolved in the center of the universe at highest (GP1) God Particle 1 Aether Particles at highest GP1 Aether Particle pressure in the center of the universe where the newly evolved neutrons decayed to proton, electron and neutrino indestructible permeable sacs that formed planets and stars that minted embryonic new neutron indestructible sacs inside the center of planets and stars that over infinite time resulted in up to 2 trillion galaxies in our finite in volume ageless universe!!): Then, all the mysteries of modern physics can be solved!!

    Just, follow me to understand why Einstein's E=MC2 is only a half-truth and how gravitational force is generated as the matter particles of a mass heatup and about subjects like dark matter gravity, dark energy, etc etc etc!!

    And Now for): OK so what does it matter?? How does knowing even the age of the Universe itself make a difference??
    It’s important to understand that the universe is infinitely old and that electromagnetic waves propagate in a Gaseous GP1 Aether Particle Medium under pressure, just as, sound waves propagate in a gaseous air medium under pressure in order to solve all the mysteries of modern physics!!

    One way or another the earth’s, days are numbered. Am I being fatalistic or pessimistic??
    No stating a fact that our planet Earth will become a cinder in about a billion years is not fatalistic!!

    Stating a very real possibility that our planet Earth will become a cinder in about 1000 years from greenhouse gas emissions is fatalistic!!

    Yeah maybe, but if we’re not going to send human beings to do the actual exploring of the Universe, where will that leave us in the future?
    Our future is here on Earth and only on our planet Earth!! If we were to control greenhouse emissions, then perhaps, mankind could survive another 777 million years!! Otherwise, in as little as 1,000 to 10,000 years, the world population could shrink back to as little as 10,000 humans!!

    As to your article reference, we are given!!):
    NASA discovers the OLDEST supermassive black hole yet??
    Story by Jonathan Chadwick For Mailonline • 2mo
    Black hole in a galaxy named UHZ1 formed 470 million years after the Big Bang
    Its light has travelled a whopping 13.2 billion years to reach our space telescopes
    Astronomers have discovered the oldest supermassive black hole yet – almost dating back to the time of the Big Bang.

    The way to tell the age of a galaxy is by size of its black hole!! For instance M87’s SMBH in the center of the Virgo Supercluster at 6.5 Billion Solar masses is the largest SMBH nearby!!

    Now, I was given that a SMBH of 3.5 Billion Solar Masses accumulates 1 solar mass every 10 years and that a 6.5 Solar Mass SMBH accumulates 1 solar mass every 5 years!!

    What that means is that SMBHs double in size every 25 Billion Years!!

    Also, if you accept that the universe is infinitely and since the most massive SMBH is only given at about 100 Billion Solar Masses, then, you must conclude that SMBHs start shrinking after reaching 100 Billion Solar Masses because the universe is infinitely old!!

    Sagittarius a, the Milky Way’s SMBH is given a about 4.1 Million Solar Masses!! Which means that Sag a must double in size 1585 times to reach the mass of M87’s SMBH of 6.5 Billion Solar masses Over a minimum of 250 Billion Years!!
    {6,500,000,000/4,100,000}= 1,585} 2e10=1012} 10x25 Billion Years}= 250 Billion Years to grow Sag a to 6.5 Billion Solar Masses!!
    Talk More Later!! Have A Great Day!!