NASA has discovered a record-breaking supermassive black hole 13 billion light-years away

Astronomers have discovered the most distant black hole ever seen in X-rays, located 13 billion light-years away in the galaxy UHZ1. Using data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the James Webb Space Telescope, the findings show that the black hole was supermassive at birth, challenging current theories about supermassive black holes in the early universe. Credit: NASA

  • A growing supermassive is a key indicator black hole – X-ray emission – detected in a very distant galaxy.
  • The galaxy, UHZ1, is 13.2 billion light-years away, seen when the universe was only 3% of its current age.
  • NASAof Chandra X-ray Laboratory and The James Webb Space Telescope joined forces to make this discovery.
  • This is considered the best evidence that some early black holes formed from massive gas clouds.
Black hole UHZ1 Annotation

Astronomers have detected the most distant black hole ever detected in X-rays (called UHZ1) using the Chandra and Webb space telescopes. X-ray emission is the telltale signature of a growing supermassive black hole. This result may explain how the first supermassive black holes formed in the universe. These images show the galaxy cluster Abel 2744, located behind UHZ1, in X-rays from Chandra and infrared data from the Web, as well as close-ups of the black hole host galaxy UHZ1. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/Ákos Bogdán; Infrared: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI; Image processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/L. Frattere & K. Arcand

NASA telescopes find record-breaking black hole

This image reveals the most distant black hole ever identified by X-rays, shedding light on the formation of the earliest supermassive black holes in the universe. The discovery was made using X-rays from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (shown in purple) and infrared data from the James Webb Space Telescope (shown in red, green, blue).

Stellar distances and observations

The most distant black hole UHZ1 lies in the direction of the galaxy cluster Abel 2744. The galaxy is about 3.5 billion light-years from Earth. However, the Webb data reveal that UHZ1 is much more distant than Abell 2744. About 13.2 billion light-years away, UHZ1 is observed when the universe is only 3% of its current age.

Gravitational lensing and X-ray detection

Using more than two weeks of observations from Chandra, the researchers were able to detect X-ray emission from UHZ1 — the signature of a supermassive black hole growing at the galaxy’s center. The X-ray signal is so faint that only Chandra has been able to detect it — even with this long observation — due to a phenomenon called gravitational lensing that quadruples the signal.

Imaging techniques and orientation

The purple areas of the image show X-rays from the superheated gas in Abel 2744. The infrared image shows hundreds of galaxies and some foreground stars. Insets zoom in to a small area centered on UHZ1. The smallest object in the Webb image is the distant galaxy UHZ1, and the center of the Chandra image shows X-rays from objects near the supermassive black hole at the center of UHZ1. The large size of the X-ray source compared to the infrared view of the galaxy means the smallest size that Chandra can resolve. The X-rays actually come from a region much smaller than the galaxy itself.

Different smoothing was applied to the full-field Chandra image and the close-up Chandra image. Because it does not show faint X-ray point sources like UHZ1, it has been smoothed across several pixels for the larger image to highlight the fainter cluster emission. Close-up uses very little softening so faint X-ray sources are visible. The image is oriented so that it points 42.5 degrees to the right of the north vertical.

Heavy seed black hole formation

Explanation: Formation of a massive seed black hole from the direct collapse of a massive gas cloud. Credit: NASA/STScI/Leah Hustak

Importance of discovery

The discovery is key to understanding how some supermassive black holes — those with billions of solar masses and residing in the centers of galaxies — could reach enormous masses after the Big Bang. Do they form directly from the collapse of massive gas clouds that form black holes weighing about ten thousand to a hundred thousand suns? Or did they come from the explosions of the first stars that produced black holes weighing tens to a hundred suns?

Research findings and theoretical implications

A team of astronomers found strong evidence that the newly discovered black hole in UHZ1 was born supermassive. Based on the brightness and energy of the X-rays, they estimate its mass to fall between 10 and 100 million suns. This mass range is the same as that of all stars in the galaxy it inhabits, in stark contrast to the black holes at the centers of galaxies in the nearby Universe, which typically contain only one-tenth of a percent of their mass. Constellation hosts the stars.

The large mass of the young black hole, the amount of X-rays it produces, and the brightness of the galaxy Webb found are all consistent with theoretical predictions in 2017 that an “outsize black hole” formed directly from the collapse of a giant gas cloud.

Continued research and collaboration

The researchers plan to use these and other results combining data from the Webb and other telescopes to fill out a bigger picture of the early universe.

A sheet describing the results will appear Natural Astronomy. Authors include Agos Bogdan (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian), Andy Golding (Princeton University), Priyamvada Natarajan (Yale University), Orsolya Kovacs (Masaryk University, Czech Republic), Grant Tremblay (CfA), Urmila Sadayamuri (CfA), Marta Volonterie (Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris, France), Ralph Kraft (CfA), William Forman (CfA), Christine Jones (CfA), Eugene Churazov (Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, Germany) , and Irina Zhuravleva (University of Chicago)

The web data used in both papers are part of a survey called Ultradeep Nirspec and nirCam Observations before the Era of Reionization (UNCOVER). A paper led by UNCOVER team member Andy Goulding will appear Astrophysical Journal Letters. Co-authors include other UNCOVER team members, Bogdan and Natarajan. A detailed descriptive paper comparing the observed properties of UHZ1 with theoretical models for outsize black hole galaxies is currently under review and a preprint is available. Here.


Echoes Bogdan, Andy D. Golding, Priyamvada Natarajan, Orsolya E. Kovacs, Grant R. Trumpley, Urmila Sadayamuri, Mardalmuri, R. B. Croft, William R. Forman, Christine Jones, Eugene Churasov, and Irina Zhuravleva, 6 Nov. 2023, Natural Astronomy.
DOI: 10.1038/s41550-023-02111-9

Andy D. Goulding, Jenny E. Green, David J. Seton, Ivo Labbe, “Uncover: The Growth of the First Massive Black Holes from JWST/NIRSpec—Spectroscopic Redshift Confirmation of X-ray Luminous AGN z = 10.1 Rachel Besanson, Tim P. Miller, Hakim Adek, Agos Bogdan, Gabriel Brammer, Irina Chemarinska, Sam E. Cutler, Pratika Dayal, Yoshinobu Futamoto, Seiji Fujimoto, Lucas J. Furdock, Vasiliy Kokorev, De Gaurav Lekhes, Joravlo Gujes, Priyamvada Natarajan, Erica Nelson, Pascal A. Oesch, Richard Pan, Casey Babovich, Sedona H. Price, Peter van Dokham, Bingzhi Wang, and John R. Weaver, Kathryn E. Whittaker and Adi Zithrin, September 22, 1999. Astrophysical Journal Letters.
DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/acf7c5

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center controls science operations from Cambridge, Massachusetts and flight operations from Burlington, Massachusetts.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space science laboratory. Webb will solve the mysteries of our solar system, look beyond the distant worlds around other stars, and explore the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. WEB is an international project led by NASA’s partners, ESA.European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

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