In the center of the Milky Way lies a supermassive black hole that’s sucked in millions or even billions of times the mass of the sun over its lifetime. And it’s not the only one: Astronomers believe that all galaxies have black holes for hearts, and many of the ones they’ve identified have been found to be absolutely ancient, having formed less than a billion years after the Big Bang.
In spacetime, a billion years on Earth is a blip — seemingly far too short a time for an entity as complex and massive for a black hole to form. But new evidence, soon to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, takes a stab at explaining how they formed so quickly.
Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, Hubble Space Telescope, and Spitzer Space Telescope, the researchers behind the study found evidence that supermassive black hole seeds can form directly in the aftermath of a giant gas cloud collapse, as lead author Fabio Pacucci, Ph.D., explains.
Previous theories had held that black hole seeds which lay the groundwork for future supermassive black holes form when smaller black holes merge and suck in gas from their surroundings. While this theory is a plausible explanation for how black holes form, it doesn’t explain how they form so quickly.
The new model proposed in the paper suggests that, after the collapse of a giant gas cloud, formation bypasses the intermediate steps — like the formation of a massive star and its subsequent destruction — and skips straight ahead to the formation of the black hole seed. The scientists based their hypothesis on their discovery of black hole seeds in long-exposure images from Chandra, Hubble, and Spitzer.
Black hole seeds are notoriously hard to find, but the researchers, as part of their larger attempt to find the first black holes in the universe, used computer modeling and infrared detection to identify two candidates, measuring their distance to confirm that they formed less than a billion years after the Big Bang.
While the authors are hesitant to say their model is “the one,” they assert that it’s at least consistent with what’s been observed in the field: “What we really believe is that our model is able to reproduce the observations without requiring unreasonable assumptions.” they said in a release.