NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is preparing to start operations this summer, and one of its many missions will be to search for early black holes in the early universe.
A a supermassive black hole is believed to be at the center of almost all major galaxies. These black holes range from millions to billions of times the mass of the sun and swallow up any surrounding material that comes too close.
A recent image from the Event Horizon Telescope captured a stunning sight view of Sagittarius A*the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Soon the James Webb Space Telescope – the largest, most expensive and most complex space telescope ever built – will help to understand how galaxies like ours came to host such a massive central black hole.
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“An intriguing recent discovery was the discovery of hyper-massive black holes, with masses of several billion solar masses, already in place when the universe was only about 700 million years old – a small fraction of its current age of 13.8 billion years,” said Roberto Maiolino, a member of the Near Infrared Spectrography Instrument Science Team ( NIRSpec) for the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA blog post. “This is a puzzling result, because at such early times there is not enough time to develop such hyper-massive black holes, according to standard theories.”
A black hole forms when a large star burns up the rest of its fuel and either collapses or falls on itself. The density of these objects creates an incredibly strong gravitational force, which attracts surrounding dust and gas, causing the black hole to grow.
To help explain how some black holes grow surprisingly large even at young ages, the researchers suggest that black holes accumulate matter at unusually high rates. Alternatively, these early black holes may form from stellar collisions, merging black holes or the collapse of primitive gas clouds not yet enriched by chemical elements heavier than helium, Maiolino explained.
The NIR spec Instrument aboard the James Webb Space Telescope is designed to help identify the seeds of early black holes and the signatures of “active phases”, during which black holes grow rapidly by consuming a lot of surrounding material, which, in turn, becomes warm and luminous. NIRSpec will help observe the light emitted by these voracious systems and measure the velocity of gas orbiting near these black hole progenitors, according to the NASA blog.
“Webb is about to open up a whole new space of discovery in this area,” Maiolino said. “It is possible that the first seeds of black holes were originally formed in the ‘baby universe’, just a few million years after the big Bang. Webb is the ideal “time machine” to learn more about these primitive objects. Its exceptional sensitivity makes Webb capable of detecting galaxiesand because of the time it takes for light emitted by galaxies to travel to us, we will see them as they were in the distant past.”
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