This impossibly massive black hole wasn't very hungry during the dawn of time

orange concentric circles around blue concentric circles intersected by white jagged line with blue spheres against a black background
illustration shows the bright active region of the quasar J1120+0641 with a supermassive black hole in an "ultra-effective feeding mode" (Image credit: T. Müller / MPIA)

Using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), astronomers have spotted a supermassive black hole at "cosmic dawn" that seems to be impossibly massive. The confusion comes from the fact that it doesn't seem like this giant void was feasting on much surrounding matter during that time — but, in order to reach its immense size, one would expect it to have been ravenous when time began.

The feeding supermassive black hole, which powers a quasar at the heart of the galaxy J1120+0641, was seen as it was when the universe was just around 5% of its current age. It also has a mass that is over a billion times that of the sun. 

While it is relatively easy to explain how closer, and thus more recent, supermassive black holes have grown to have billions of solar masses, the merger and feeding processes that facilitate such growth are expected to take something like a billion years. That means finding such supermassive black holes existing before the 13.8 billion-year-old universe was a billion years old is a real dilemma. 

Since it began operations in the summer of 2022, the JWST has proved particularly efficient at spotting such challenging black holes at cosmic dawn. 

One theory surrounding the early growth of these voids is that they were engaged in a feeding frenzy called an "ultra-effective feeding mode." However, the JWST's observations of the supermassive black hole in J1120+0641 showed no particularly efficient feeding mechanism in the material in close vicinity to it. This finding casts doubt on the ultrafast feeding supermassive black hole growth mechanism and means scientists may know even less about the early evolution of the cosmos than they realized. 

Related: How did supermassive black holes get so big so fast just after the Big Bang?

"Overall, the new observations only add to the mystery: Early quasars were shockingly normal," team leader and Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) post-doctoral researcher Sarah Bosman said in a statement. "No matter in which wavelengths we observe them, quasars are nearly identical at all epochs of the universe."

A timeline of the universe. Finding supermassive black holes billions of years after the Big Bang is expected, but discovering them around the time the first stars formed is more surprising. (Image credit: ESA)

Supermassive black holes control their own diets

In the last 13.8 billion years of cosmic history, galaxies have grown in size by acquiring mass either by taking in surrounding gas and dust, by cannibalizing smaller galaxies, or by merging with larger galaxies.

Around 20 years ago, before the JWST and other telescopes began finding troubling supermassive black holes in the early universe, astronomers had assumed that the supermassive black holes at the hearts of galaxies grew gradually in lockstep with the processes that led to galactic growth.

In fact, there are limits to how fast a black hole can grow — limits these cosmic titans  actually help set themselves. 

Because of the conservation of angular momentum, matter can't fall directly into a black hole. Instead, a flattened cloud of matter called an accretion disk is formed around the black hole. Further, the immense gravity of the central black hole gives rise to powerful tidal forces that create turbulent conditions in the accretion disk, heating it and causing it to emit light across the electromagnetic spectrum. These emissions are so bright they often outshine the combined light of every star in the surrounding galaxy. The regions in which all this happens are called quasars, and they represent some of the brightest celestial objects.

This brightness has another function, too. Despite not having mass, light does exert pressure. That means that the light emitted by quasars pushes on surrounding matter. The faster the black hole powering the quasar feeds, the greater the radiation pressure and the more likely the black hole is to cut off its own food supply and stop growing. The point at which black holes, or any other accretor, starve themselves by pushing away surrounding matter is known as the "Eddington limit."

That means supermassive black holes can't just feed and grow as fast as they like. Thus, finding supermassive black holes with masses as great as 10 billion suns in the early cosmos, especially less than a billion years after the Big Bang, is a real problem.

An illustration shows a feeding supermassive black hole. How did early examples of these objects get so big so soon after the Big Bang?  (Image credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF, S. Dagnello)

Astronomers need to know more about early quasars to determine whether early supermassive black holes were able to overcome the Eddington limit and become so-called "super-Eddington accretors."

To do this, in January 2023, the team focused the JWST's Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on the quasar at the heart of J1120+0641, located 13 billion light-years away and seen as it was just 770 million years after the Big Bang. The investigation constitutes the first mid-infrared study of a quasar that existed at cosmic dawn. 

The spectrum of light from this early supermassive black hole revealed the properties of the large, ring-shaped "torus" of gas and dust that circles the accretion disk. This torus helps guide matter to the accretion disk, from where it is gradually fed to the supermassive black hole. 

MIRI observations of this quasar showed that the cosmic supply chain functions similarly to that of "modern" quasars closer to Earth that therefore exist in later epochs of the universe. That's bad news for proponents of the theory that an enhanced feeding mechanism led to the quick growth of early black holes. 

Additionally, measurements of the region around the supermassive black hole, where matter swirls at almost the speed of light, conformed with observations of the same regions of modern quasars. 

The JWST observations of this quasar did reveal one major difference between it and its modern counterparts. The dust in the torus around the accretion disk had a temperature of around 2,060 degrees Fahrenheit (1,130 degrees Celsius), which is around 100 degrees hotter than the dust rings around supermassive black hole-powered quasars seen closer to Earth.

The research favors another method of early supermassive black hole growth that suggests these cosmic titans got a head start in the early universe, forming from black hole "seeds" that were already massive These heavy seeds would have had masses at least a hundred thousand times that of the sun, forming directly via the collapse of early and massive clouds of gas.

The team's research was published on June 17 in the journal Nature Astronomy. 

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Robert Lea
Senior Writer

Robert Lea is a science journalist in the U.K. whose articles have been published in Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, All About Space, Newsweek and ZME Science. He also writes about science communication for Elsevier and the European Journal of Physics. Rob holds a bachelor of science degree in physics and astronomy from the U.K.’s Open University. Follow him on Twitter @sciencef1rst.

  • Unclear Engineer
    "scientists may know even less about the early evolution of the cosmos than they realized. "
    "No matter in which wavelengths we observe them, quasars are nearly identical at all epochs of the universe."

    And so, the BBT fans have more 'spainin' to do. But, don't worry, they have proven to be capable of explaining everything - until somebody finds a way to test it. They are very agile with a very flexible theory.

    Meanwhile, I do have a question. My memory of what I have read about quasars is that they are not uniformly distributed in the observable universe - most appear to be "distant" and thus "earlier" in the evolution of the universe. Is that correct?
  • Brad
    .....or the universe is older than we think.
  • Atlan0001
    A pointer to my interpretation (#604):
  • anatman
    The relationship of the origin of the universe and why we are finding supermassive black holes (smb) so close to the origin, which is contrary to previous consensus reality (there shouldn't be enough matter to fuel a smb at this point of time) is related to the nature of existence itself and the observer. Science cannot unravel the origin of the universe nor explain the nature of the observer. It will be an eternal mystery. No permanent answer will be forthcoming even if the observer has an infinite amount of time to "solve" this problem.
  • Classical Motion
    Galaxy starlight flux is much different than any other flux. In all the flux of earth that we study, all of the components of the flux is present locally. And make the flux.

    But starlight flux has a huge time and location band within it. I am not referring to the flux from one star. Even though the light from one star is apparent also. I am referring to a flux of stars. Star are the components of the flux. A star field. Thus the flux of starlight is only apparent. What you see is NOT there. It only was there. A multi-exposure image. It's like taking a snapshot of a baseball game every five minutes and then putting all the images together into one image.

    Only starlight time stamps are not from selections of time.....they are from selections of distance. Giving the illusion of time.

    One "apparent" upon another. What star light we see is only due to our position and the past emitters distance. Our position determines WHAT we see. Our velocity determines HOW we see it. One apparent measurement on top another.

    The reason man will always be curious is because there are questions that can not be answered.
  • billslugg
    Teaser overstates the article: "When time began" is not at the same time as "cosmic dawn".
    A SMBH is not a "cosmic void".
    When I see things like this, I trash the rest of the article. Someone, or some thing, does not know what they are talking about.
  • Unclear Engineer
    So, back to my question in post #2:

    I do have a question. My memory of what I have read about quasars is that they are not uniformly distributed in the observable universe - most appear to be "distant" and thus "earlier" in the evolution of the universe. Is that correct?
  • Questioner
    Maybe the Higgs field was different than current and made some particle(s) much more massive, allowing for relatively rapid aggregations of cold mass.
  • rod
    The ref paper cited and abstract provides some interesting info to geek out on :)

    "...We present JWST/MRS (rest-frame infrared) spectroscopic observations of the quasar J1120+0641 at z=7.0848 (well within the epoch of reionization). The hot torus dust was clearly detected at λrest~1.3 µm, with a black-body temperature of Tdust=1,413.5+5.7−7.4K, slightly elevated compared to similarly luminous quasars at lower redshifts. Importantly, the supermassive black hole mass of J1120+0641 based on the Hα line (accessible only with JWST), MBH=1.52±0.17×10^9M⊙, is in good agreement with previous ground-based rest-frame ultraviolet Mg II measurements."

    A SMBH of 1.52E+9 solar masses, diameter about 39.48 au across, compare this size to our solar system from Sun to Pluto. Redshift 7.0848 using cosmology calculators provides distance (look back time distance) about 13 Gly,
    Resolving this black hole diameter at about 3.99E+9 pc, close to 9.9E-6 mas angular size. The comoving radial distance in GR expanding space places the object well beyond the 13 Gly distance used for most reporting.

    Edit correction. 1.52E+9 solar mass BH about 60 au across and angular size about 1.5E-5 mas, I used 1 billion solar mass BH initially. The abstract reported 1.5E+9 solar mass BH.