Credit: Mark Ross

Topics: Astrophysics, Black Holes, Cosmology, General Relativity

How could the oldest black holes have grown so big so early in the universe?

Imagine the universe in its infancy. Most scientists think space and time originated with the big bang. From that hot and dense start the cosmos expanded and cooled, but it took a while for stars and galaxies to start dotting the sky. It was not until about 380,000 years after the big bang that atoms could hold together and fill the universe with mostly hydrogen gas. When the cosmos was a few hundred million years old, this gas coalesced into the earliest stars, which formed in clusters that clumped together into galaxies, the oldest of which appears 400 million years after the universe was born. To their surprise, scientists have found that another class of astronomical objects begins to appear at this point, too: quasars.

Quasars are extremely bright objects powered by gas falling onto supermassive black holes. They are some of the most luminous things in the universe, visible out to the farthest reaches of space. The most distant quasars are also the most ancient, and the oldest among them pose a mystery.

To be visible at such incredible distances, these quasars must be fueled by black holes containing about a billion times the mass of the sun. Yet conventional theories of black hole formation and growth suggest that a black hole big enough to power these quasars could not have formed in less than a billion years. In 2001, however, with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, astronomers began finding quasars that dated back earlier. The oldest and most distant quasar known, which was reported last December, existed just 690 million years after the big bang. In other words, it does not seem that there had been enough time in the history of the universe for quasars like this one to form.

Many astronomers think that the first black holes—seed black holes—are the remnants of the first stars, corpses left behind after the stars exploded into supernovae. Yet these stellar remnants should contain no more than a few hundred solar masses. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the black holes powering the first quasars grew from seeds this small.

To solve this quandary, a decade ago some colleagues and I proposed a way that seed black holes massive enough to explain the first quasars could have formed without the birth and death of stars. Instead these black hole seeds would have formed directly from gas. We call them direct-collapse black holes (DCBHs). In the right environments, direct-collapse black holes could have been born at 104 or 105 solar masses within a few hundred million years after the big bang. With this head start, they could have easily grown to 109 or 1010 solar masses, thereby producing the ancient quasars that have puzzled astronomers for nearly two decades.

The question is whether this scenario actually happened. Luckily, when the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launches in 2019, we should be able to find out.

The Puzzle of the First Black Holes, Priyamvada Natarajan, Scientific American

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