Looking deeper and deeper into the cosmos, the James Webb Space Telescope has spotted the most distant active supermassive black hole yet found in a galaxy known as CEERS 1019 that was shining just 570 million years after the Big Bang.
Webb’s Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey, or CEERS, also found two other black holes and pinpointed 11 galaxies that existed when the universe was between just 470 and 675 million years old.
If that’s not impressive enough, the black holes and infant galaxies were found in a CEERS mosaic assembled from a series of one-hour exposures revealing about 100,000 galaxies in all.
“Until now, research about objects in the early universe was largely theoretical,” said Steven Finkelstein of the University of Texas at Austin, leader of the CEERS project. “With Webb, not only can we see black holes and galaxies at extreme distances, we can now start to accurately measure them. That’s the tremendous power of this telescope.”
The black hole in CEERS 1019 is “lighter” than any other black hole found in that early epoch, tipping the scales at about nine million solar masses. That makes it similar to the 4.6-million-solar-mass black hole at the heart of the Milky Way. Even though astronomers expected smaller supermassive black holes in the early universe, it’s still difficult to explain how CEERS 1019 formed and grew so large so soon after the Big Bang.
“Looking at this distant object with this telescope is a lot like looking at data from black holes that exist in galaxies near our own,” said Rebecca Larson of the University of Texas at Austin, who led this discovery. “There are so many spectral lines to analyse!”
Webb’s ultra-sharp infrared vision allowed researchers to separate the spectral signatures of the black hole from its host galaxy, helping nail down how much gas the object is ingesting and determining the galaxy’s star-formation rate.
The other two black holes found in the ongoing CEERS project date back to 1 and 1.1 billion years after the Big Bang. Both are about 10 million times the mass of the Sun.
“Researchers have long known that there must be lower mass black holes in the early universe,” said Dale Kocevski of Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “Webb is the first observatory that can capture them so clearly. Now we think that lower mass black holes might be all over the place, waiting to be discovered.”
CEERS 1019’s “most distant” record is not expected to last long. As NASA said in a news release, “claims about other, more distant black holes identified by Webb are currently being carefully reviewed by the astronomical community.”