Webb observes the furthest active supermassive black hole on record

The graphic showcases the redshift of an active supermassive black hole. In the top right corner, there is a complete NIRCam image of the field, which has an uneven white outline and is relatively small. On the left of the NIRCam image, there is a large pullout labeled NIRCam imaging, displaying galaxies of different colors, shapes, and sizes across the top row. At the far right of the pullout, there is a tiny open white box with a line drawn to a larger image on the left. In the inset image, there is a larger blurry red dot with two green dots on its left and right. The pullout is labeled CEERS 1019, indicating its existence 13.2 billion years ago. The bottom row consists of a line graph labeled NIRSpec Microshutter Array Spectroscopy. The graph shows data in white, a yellow model representing faster gas around the black hole, and a purple line representing slower gas in the galaxy. For more detailed information, refer to the Extended Description. Credit: NASA

It’s a remarkable discovery: the universe is brimming with an abundance of black holes. Although researchers have been aware of this, they were unable to detect less massive black holes that existed in the early universe due to their low brightness. However, thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope’s observations, researchers from the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) Survey have started identifying these bright, extremely distant objects in the highly detailed images and data captured by the telescope. Their first significant finding is the most distant active supermassive black hole ever discovered, existing just over 570 million years after the big bang. This black hole is relatively smaller in size, similar to the one at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, rather than the much larger “monsters” observed previously with other telescopes. Additionally, the CEERS researchers have identified two more small black holes and almost a dozen extremely distant galaxies in the early universe. These initial findings suggest that less massive black holes and galaxies were more prevalent in the early universe than previously known.

The James Webb Space Telescope has provided researchers with the discovery of the most distant active supermassive black hole to date. This black hole, located within the CEERS 1019 galaxy, existed just over 570 million years after the big bang and has a smaller mass compared to other black holes observed in the early universe. In addition to this groundbreaking finding, two more black holes on the smaller side were also identified, existing 1 and 1.1 billion years after the big bang. Webb’s observations have also revealed eleven galaxies that were present when the universe was 470 to 675 million years old. These remarkable discoveries were made possible through the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) Survey led by Steven Finkelstein from the University of Texas at Austin. The survey utilized Webb’s near- and mid-infrared images, as well as spectroscopic data, to make these significant findings. CEERS 1019 stands out not only for its ancient existence but also for its relatively lightweight black hole. With a mass of about 9 million solar masses, this black hole is considerably smaller than the previously detected massive black holes in the early universe. Its resemblance to the black hole in our Milky Way, which has a mass 4.6 million times that of the sun, is noteworthy. Although not as bright as the larger black holes, this early black hole’s formation remains a mystery due to its early appearance in the universe. While scientists knew that smaller black holes existed earlier in the universe, definitive detections were only made possible through Webb’s observations. It’s important to note that CEERS 1019 might hold this record for just a short period as claims about other even more distant black holes identified by Webb are currently under review by the astronomical community. Webb’s data is filled with precise information, making it easier to extract confirmations of these discoveries. Rebecca Larson from the University of Texas at Austin, who led the discovery, compares observing this distant object with viewing data from black holes in galaxies near our own. The abundance of spectral lines in the data allowed researchers to distinguish emissions from the black hole and its host galaxy, as well as determine the amount of gas the black hole is consuming and the star-formation rate of its galaxy. The team discovered that CEERS 1019 is consuming as much gas as it can while simultaneously producing new stars. They turned to the images to investigate why that might be the case. Visually, CEERS 1019 appears as three bright clumps rather than a single circular disk. Jeyhan Kartaltepe from the Rochester Institute of Technology remarks on the unusual level of structure visible in these distant images. A galaxy merger may contribute to the increased activity observed in this black hole and potentially lead to enhanced star formation.

The CEERS survey is vast and offers many more opportunities for exploration. The team swiftly detected another pair of small black holes in the data. The first, located within the CEERS 2782 galaxy, was easily identifiable as Webb’s view was unaffected by dust, allowing researchers to determine its existence only 1.1 billion years after the big bang. The second black hole, within the CEERS 746 galaxy, existed slightly earlier, 1 billion years after the big bang. Although its central black hole is visible, the presence of dust suggests that it lies within a galaxy that is actively producing stars. These two black holes, much like the one in CEERS 1019, are considered lightweight when compared to other supermassive black holes at similar distances, with a mass of only about 10 million times that of the sun. Dale Kocevski from Colby College comments on the revelation that lower mass black holes might be more prevalent in the early universe than previously thought, and Webb’s ability to capture them so clearly. He speculates that lower mass black holes may be widespread, awaiting discovery. Prior to Webb, these three black holes were too faint to detect and were simply seen as ordinary star-forming galaxies using other telescopes. Webb’s sensitive spectra also enabled researchers to measure precise distances and ages of galaxies in the early universe. Pablo Arrabal Haro from NSF’s NOIRLab and Seiji Fujimoto from the University of Texas at Austin identified eleven galaxies that existed 470 to 675 million years after the big bang. Not only are these galaxies extraordinarily distant, but their abundance is surprising, as researchers anticipated Webb would detect fewer galaxies at such distances. The highly detailed spectral data provided by Webb has left Arrabal Haro in awe and is bound to greatly impact our understanding of star formation and galaxy evolution throughout cosmic history.

These are only the initial groundbreaking findings from the CEERS survey. Until now, research about objects in the early universe has been primarily theoretical. However, with the capabilities of Webb, researchers are able to gather concrete evidence and further our knowledge of the early universe.

 

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