Using two space telescopes, scientists have spotted the oldest black hole ever detected, dating to just 470 million years after the Big Bang. The cosmic structure is so old that if the 13.8-billion-year history of the universe were squeezed into one calendar year, it would date to just the second week of January.
Beyond its mind-boggling age, this black hole is also huge—somewhere between 10 million and 100 million times more massive than our solar system’s sun.
“It’s just really early on in the universe to be such a behemoth,” study co-author Priyamvada Natarajan, an astrophysicist at Yale University, tells Marcia Dunn of the Associated Press (AP). “It’s astounding how this thing actually is sitting in place already with its galaxy so early on in the universe.”
The new research, published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy, “provides a wealth of new information on how the seeds of today’s supermassive black holes came about,” Ákos Bogdán, a co-author of the study and astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, tells Nature News’ Alexandra Witze.
Black holes are unfathomable amounts of matter stuffed into a relatively tiny space, creating gravitational fields that suck in anything in their vicinity, including light. Some black holes, called “stellar mass” black holes, form when stars collapse. These comparatively smaller structures can have masses ranging from a few to one hundred times that of our sun.
However, almost all large galaxies contain a supermassive black hole—one with a mass that’s millions to billions of times as much as our sun’s. Scientists know from studying quasars—extremely bright cores of galaxies—that many supermassive black holes existed less than 700 million years after the Big Bang. But they aren’t sure how these huge cosmic objects came about.
To tackle this question, the researchers looked at 11 galaxies detected by the James Webb Space Telescope. Then, they searched for black holes within them using the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, a space telescope that picks up X-ray emissions from its orbit around Earth. Gas that emits X-rays is a sign of a supermassive black hole.
Chandra’s data pointed to the presence of a black hole in a galaxy called UHZ1. Light from this distant galaxy took 13.2 billion years to reach our planet and paints a picture of UHZ1 in the early days of the universe.
The brightness and energy of the X-rays indicated that even in its early days, this black hole was gargantuan—it could weigh as much as all the stars in its galaxy combined. In closer galaxies, for comparison, the stars weigh around 1,000 times as much as their black holes do.
“It’s really awesome to see a massive black hole so early on,” Daryl Haggard, an astrophysicist at McGill University in Canada who did not contribute to the findings, tells Nature News.
Scientists have two leading theories about how the first supermassive black holes were first formed: One is that they were remnants of the explosions of single stars, beginning as “stellar mass” black holes and growing into supermassive ones over time. Another idea is that they were born from the collapse of gargantuan clouds of gas that created supermassive black holes immediately, measuring between 10,000 and 100,000 times as massive as our sun from their beginnings.
“There are physical limits on how quickly black holes can grow once they’ve formed, but ones that are born more massive have a head start,” Andy Goulding, a co-author of the study and astrophysicist at Princeton University, says in a statement from NASA.
The new findings support the second idea, that this black hole was born massive, called a “heavy seed” origin.
“In this case, we can say with certainty that the black hole came from a heavy seed,” Bogdan tells the Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach. “It is a pretty big deal.”
But because the study looks at only one black hole and thus is just a single piece of evidence, scientists can’t draw any conclusions about the origin of all early supermassive black holes, per the publication.