Using Webb, scientists discover the most distant active supermassive black hole

by Haygen Warren

Utilizing the infrared-sensitive instruments of the joint NASA/European Space Agency (ESA)/Canadian Space Agency (CSA) James Webb Space Telescope, a group of scientists has discovered the most distant active supermassive black hole to date. Located within a galaxy named CEERS 1019 — that existed just 570 million years after the formation of the universe — the black hole is less massive than any other black hole identified in the early universe.

What’s more, Webb’s data, which was collected as part of the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) survey,  has hinted at the existence of two additional black holes that are small in size and that could’ve existed around one billion years after the formation of the universe. CEERS was also able to identify eleven galaxies that existed when the universe was between the ages of 470 and 675 million years old.

While the age and distance of the black hole in CEERS 1019 are notable, the black hole’s small size — and subsequently its weight — is of immense interest to scientists. The black hole is approximately nine million times more massive than our Sun — a mass that is far less than any other previously discovered black holes that existed during this time. Typically, supermassive black holes have masses that are one billion times that of the Sun. Their extreme masses make them much easier to detect and observe, which then allows scientists to analyze them in extreme detail.

The full CEERS survey, taken by Webb. (Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/Steve Finkelstein (UT Austin)/Micaela Bagley (UT Austin)/Rebecca Larson (UT Austin))

Given its low mass and small size, the CEERS 1019 black hole was relatively dim and difficult to observe. However, with Webb’s immense sensitivity to the infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum, the telescope was able to collect data that allowed scientists to discover and characterize the black hole.

“With other telescopes, these targets look like ordinary star-forming galaxies, not active supermassive black holes,” said CEERS lead Steve Finkelstein of the University of Texas at Austin.

As mentioned, scientists were able to determine that the black hole existed when the universe was just 570 million years old. Scientists have long theorized that small black holes existed during the early universe, but they were not expecting to find a black hole that existed this early in the life of the universe. In fact, the team is unsure how a black hole could even form this early in the universe’s lifetime.

As the CEERS survey team continues to analyze the data from Webb, the CEERS 1019 black hole could only hold the record for the most distant supermassive black hole for a few weeks. Webb’s CEERS data is full of uber-precise information that could reveal even more distant black holes once analyzed.

“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. There are so many spectral lines to analyze!” said lead author Rebecca Larson, also of the University of Texas at Austin.

Graphic showing the location of CEERS 1019, its location in the survey, and its gas ingestion data from Webb. (Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/Leah Hustak (STScI))

Analyzing spectral lines of CEERS 1019 allowed Larson et al. to determine how much gas the black hole is ingesting, and, subsequently, the star-formation rate of the galaxy. The team found that the black hole is ingesting as much gas as possible while CEERS 1019 continues to produce more stars.

However, why is this happening?

After investigating Webb’s images of CEERS 1019, the team found that the galaxy appears as three bright clumps of light rather than a singular, circular point of light. This could hint at a galaxy merger, in which case the black hole could be pulling in gas from two or three galaxies that have all merged. Simultaneously, the gas from the galaxies could be forcing star formation.

“We’re not used to seeing so much structure in images at these distances. A galaxy merger could be partly responsible for fueling the activity in this galaxy’s black hole, and that could also lead to increased star formation,” said CEERS member Jeyhan Kartaltepe of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

As aforementioned, all of this information is coming from just a few months of analysis. As the data continues to be analyzed by Larson et al., new discoveries will likely be made. In fact, the team is already looking into two other small black holes spotted in the CEERS data.

Shortly after the CEERS data was given to the team, CEERS member Dale Kocevski of Colby College in Maine noticed two small black holes in the data that are similar in size to the CEERS 1019 black hole. The most prominent of the two black holes is located in galaxy CEERS 2782, which was not obscured by any dust or other cosmic material — this allowed Webb to easily examine and characterize the black hole. After analyzing the data, the team found that this black hole existed just 1.1 billion years after the formation of the universe.

Graphic showing CEERS 2782 and CEERS 746, their locations in the survey, and their spectral lines. (Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/Leah Hustak (STScI))

The second black hole is located in galaxy CEERS 746 and was determined to have existed when the universe was just one billion years old. Additionally, Webb was able to spot a bright accretion disk around the black hole, which is a ring of gas, dust, and other cosmic material that is falling into the black hole. However, unlike the CEERS 2782 black hole, the CEERS 746 black hole was partially obscured by dust — which may hint at a high star-formation rate within CEERS 746.

“The central black hole is visible, but the presence of dust suggests it might lie within a galaxy that is also furiously pumping out stars,” Kocevski said.

Both the CEERS 2782 and CEERS 746 black holes are small and low in mass like the CEERS 1019 black hole. Both black holes are approximately 10 million times the mass of the Sun.

“Researchers have long known that there must be lower mass black holes in the early universe. 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,” said Kocevski.

Graphic showing the relationship between the mass and age of the most distant active supermassive black holes ever detected. Note the locations of CEERS 1019, CEERS, 746, and CEERS 2782 on the graph. (Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/Leah Hustak (STScI))

In addition to CEERS’s black hole discoveries, the survey utilized Webb’s spectra capabilities to measure the exact distances to and ages of several galaxies that existed in the early universe. CEERS members Pablo Arrabal Haro of NOIRLab and Seiji Fujimoto of the University of Texas at Austin were able to identify 11 galaxies that existed when the universe was 470 to 675 million years old. The extremely old ages of these galaxies mean they are among the most distant galaxies ever discovered. Furthermore, the number of galaxies being discovered is very notable, as many scientists predicted that Webb would detect far fewer galaxies at these distances than have been detected with CEERS.

“I am overwhelmed by the amount of highly detailed spectra of remote galaxies Webb returned. These data are absolutely incredible,” Hato said.

Even though the galaxies are forming stars at extremely fast rates, they are not as chemically enriched as other galaxies that are closer to the Milky Way. These yet-to-be chemically enriched galaxies are extremely rare, with some never being discovered until Webb’s observations.

“Webb was the first to detect some of these galaxies. This set, along with other distant galaxies we may identify in the future, might change our understanding of star formation and galaxy evolution throughout cosmic history,” Fujimoto explained.

These discoveries are just the very first groundbreaking discoveries to come from CEERS. As mentioned, as scientists continue to analyze the data, they’ll make even more first-of-its-kind discoveries that will change our understanding of the early universe forever.

“Until now, research about objects in the early universe was largely theoretical. 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,” said Finkelstein.

Each of these team’s major discoveries has been published in the journal The Astrophysical Journal Letters: Larson et al., Kocevski et al., Haro et al., and Fujimoto et al..

(Lead image: A portion of the CEERS survey taken by Webb. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/Steve Finkelstein (UT Austin)/Micaela Bagley (UT Austin)/Rebecca Larson (UT Austin))

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