Astronomers using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have spotted a group of galaxies lying around a supermassive black hole when the Universe was still very young. Such a close grouping has never been seen so soon after the Big Bang.
And the experts think the finding supports a theory for how supermassive black holes formed and grow so quickly.
These are extreme systems and to date we have had no good explanation for their existence
Dr Marco Mignoli
The landmark new study suggests supermassive black holes grow rapidly within enormous, web-like infrastructures containing the gas needed to fuel them.
Dr Marco Mignoli, a National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) astronomer and the study’s lead author, said: “This research was mainly driven by the desire to understand some of the most challenging astronomical objects — supermassive black holes in the early Universe.
“These are extreme systems and to date we have had no good explanation for their existence.
ESO’s VLT revealed several galaxies sitting around a supermassive black hole, lying in a cosmic “spider’s web” of gas.
This area is so huge, it spans more than 300 times the size of our Milky Way galaxy.
Dr Mignoli added: “The cosmic web filaments are like spider’s web threads.
“The galaxies stand and grow where the filaments cross, and streams of gas — available to fuel both the galaxies and the central supermassive black hole — can flow along the filaments.”
Light emitted from this web-like structure, boasting its black hole of one billion solar masses at its core, has travelled to Earth from a time when the Universe was only 0.9 billion years old.
INAF’s Dr Roberto Gilli said in a statement: “Our work has placed an important piece in the largely incomplete puzzle that is the formation and growth of such extreme, yet relatively abundant, objects so quickly after the Big Bang.”
Astronomers now suspect the first black holes have swelled surprisingly fast to reach masses of a billion suns within this first 0.9 billion years.
However, astronomers were until now unable to explain how sufficiently large amounts of “black hole fuel” could have been available to enable these objects to bloat to such enormous sizes in such a short time.
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But ESO’s remarkable new discovery now provides a compelling explanation – the galaxies trapped within this “spider’s web” contains enough gas to the provide all the fuel its central black hole needs.
Astronomers also think giant halos of mysterious dark matter are key in the formation of these web-like structures.
These incomprehensibly huge regions of invisible matter likely attract incredible quantities of gas in the early Universe.
And in tandem, the gas and the invisible dark matter form the web-like structures where galaxies and black holes can evolve.
Professor Colin Norman of Johns Hopkins University and the study’s co-author, said: “Our finding lends support to the idea that the most distant and massive black holes form and grow within massive dark matter halos in large-scale structures, and that the absence of earlier detections of such structures was likely due to observational limitations.”
The galaxies now detected are some of the faintest ever observed by telescopes.
Today’s findings required observations over several hours using the most powerful optical telescopes ever made, including ESO’s VLT.
Making use of the MUSE and FORS2 instruments on the VLT at ESO’s Paranal Observatory, the researchers were able to confirm the link between four of the six galaxies and the black hole.
Dr Barbara Balmaverde, an astronomer at INAF, added: “We believe we have just seen the tip of the iceberg, and that the few galaxies discovered so far around this supermassive black hole are only the brightest ones.”
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