Monster Black Holes Lurk at the Edge of Time

Article Updated: 23 Dec , 2015


The reddish object in this infrared image is ULASJ1234+0907, located about 11 billion light-years from Earth. The red color comes from vast amounts of dust, which absorbs bluer light, and obscures the supermassive black hole from view in visible wavelengths. Credit: image created using data from UKIDSS and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) observatory.

As if staring toward the edge of the Universe weren’t fascinating enough, scientists at the University of Cambridge say they see enormous, rapidly growing supermassive black holes barely detectable near the edge of time.

Thick dust shrouds the monster black holes but they emit vast amounts of radiation through violent interactions and collisions with their host galaxies making them visible in the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The team published their results in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The most remote object in the study lies at a whopping 11 billion light-years from Earth. Ancient light from the supermassive black hole, named ULASJ1234+0907 and located toward the constellation of Virgo, the Maiden, has traveled (at almost 10 trillion kilometers, or 6 million million miles, per year) across the cosmos for nearly the estimated age of the Universe. The monster black hole is more than 10 billion times the mass of our Sun and 10,000 times more massive than the black hole embedded in the Milky Way Galaxy; making it one of the most massive black holes ever seen. And it’s not alone. Researchers say that there may be as many as 400 giants black holes in the tiny sliver of the Universe that we can observe.

“These results could have a significant impact on studies of supermassive black holes” said Dr Manda Banerji, lead author of the paper, in a press release. “Most black holes of this kind are seen through the matter they drag in. As the neighbouring material spirals in towards the black holes, it heats up. Astronomers are able to see this radiation and observe these systems.”

The team from Cambridge used infrared surveys being carried out on the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) to peer through the dust and locate the giant black holes for the first time.

“These results are particularly exciting because they show that our new infrared surveys are finding super massive black holes that are invisible in optical surveys,” says Richard McMahon, co-author of the study. “These new quasars are important because we may be catching them as they are being fed through collisions with other galaxies. Observations with the new Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) telescope in Chile will allow us to directly test this picture by detecting the microwave frequency radiation emitted by the vast amounts of gas in the colliding galaxies.”

Huge black holes are known to reside at the centers of all galaxies. Astronomers predict the most massive of these cosmic phenomena grow through violent collisions with other galaxies. Galactic interactions trigger star formation which provides more fuel for black holes to devour. And it’s during this process that thick layers of dust hide the munching black holes.

“Although these black holes have been studied for some time,” says Banergi, “the new results indicate that some of the most massive ones may have so far been hidden from our view. The newly discovered black holes, devouring the equivalent of several hundred Suns every year, will shed light on the physical processes governing the growth of all supermassive black holes.”

Astronomers compare the extreme case of ULASJ1234+0907 with the relatively nearby and well-studied Markarian 231. Markarian 231, found just 600 million light-years away, appears to have recently undergone a violent collision with another galaxy producing an example of a dusty, growing black hole in the local Universe. By contrast, the more extreme example of ULASJ1234+0907, shows scientists that conditions in the early Universe were more turbulent and inhospitable than today.

Source: Royal Astronomical Society

Image Credit: Markarian 231, an example of a galaxy with a dusty rapidly growing supermassive black hole located 600 million light years from Earth. The bright source at the center of the galaxy marks the black hole while rings of gas and dust can be seen around it as well as “tidal tails” left over from a recent impact with another galaxy. Courtesy of NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

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16 Responses

  1. lcrowell says:

    Such large SMBHs in the early matter dominated period of the universe does pose some interesting questions about the entropy of the early universe. Certainly during the inflationary period black hole formation is very unlikely as points of space move exponentially apart and drag mass-energy with them. The subsequent periods of radiation dominated phase does not favor black hole formation either. We might postulate black holes emerged in the most early phase, when the universe quantum tunneled out of the vacuum. However, the initial entropy of the universe would have been much larger. This poses serious problems in understanding cosmology. So how is it the universe from 10^6 to 10^9 years evolved in order to generate such large black holes and the entropy associated with their large event horizon areas?


    • zetetic elench says:

      in other words, how did they get so freaken large so fast?
      a very large mystery.

      • lcrowell says:

        That is about it. We image early distant galaxies and know that matter is clumping by gravity within 500 million after the big bang. Yet these proto-galaxies are small affairs. The earliest black holes probably formed with the supernova induced implosions of PopIII stars. These may have been up to several 10 solar masses. Somehow these turned into billion solar mass black holes within 1/2 to 1 billion years, and they may have grown fast right away.

        It is hard in a way to get stuff into a black hole. You can throw something at a black hole, but if you are slightly off that object will just go into an orbit around the black hole. There has to be some dissipation mechanism to cause objects to lose orbital energy and spiral in. Accretion disks do this, but contrary to expectation they throw the vast majority of matter away from the black hole. It is like trying to flush too much down the toilet; the darn thing backs up.

        So how did these 10 to maybe 50 solar mass black holes around 500 million years after the big bang turn into large black holes of 10^5 to 10^6 solar masses within maybe a 1 to 10 million years? These then continued to grow in some cases to 1 to 10 billion solar mass BHs.


      • newSteveZodiac says:

        I have this vision of Pop. 3 stars going off like a string of firecrackers all over a compressed early universe.

      • magnus.nyborg says:

        Maybe many of the first black holes was of the 500+Msun variety, caused by a full collapse (not explosion) of huge PopIII stars. Those could potentially develop inside a low angular momentum surrounding where the infall of additional matter could subsequently be ‘swallowed’ by the budding SMBH. Even more so if the angular momentum in the surroundings are conflicting with the black hole, or even if the infalling matter contains neighbouring budding SMBH’s that have developed in a similar fashion.

      • lcrowell says:

        There was a concept of the superstar that Fowler and Hoyle advanced way back in the 1960s. They proposed stars with up to a billion solar masses. People found these were not stable, and observations did not bear out their existence. While 10^9 solar masses is maybe too large, the idea might be revisited for smaller mass, say 10^3 to 10^6 solar masses. The solutions people looked at were static and further involved equations of state for material that make up ordinary stars. These solutions failed to be stable and the idea was abandoned.

        The idea though could be reconsidered (Hanford are you reading this?) for a more dynamical situation. Hydrogen and helium at 75% and 25% might accumulate in large clumps and evolve into a form of supersized PopIII stars. Most PopIII stars are considered to be a few 100 solar masses, largely because this is the limit of what is thought to be physically stable. Also PopIII star stability is hard to compute since hydrogen and helium have low opacities. As a result radiation produced in fusion is not held in the star by radiative scattering. So these are touchy objects to theoretically work with to start. However, a more dynamical PopIII star might be considered where far more matter is involved and the system is an imploding fusion plus black hole factory. The object might have rapidly imploding material in a fusion process at the core, but where the core growth is large enough to start forming a black hole. Maybe some decent sized black holes could come out of this.

        These data do suggest that 10^6 or maybe larger solar mass black holes evolved quickly at the end of the so called dark ages.


      • wjwbudro says:

        If we ponder what “might have been” the BB singularity physical properties, why not consider these early black holes as remnants (shrapnel?) that refused to transition (decay?) into the stuff we see (and not see) that makes up our universal bubble.

      • lcrowell says:

        The entropy of a black hole is S = k A/4L_p^2, where A is the area of the black hole event horizon A = 4?r^2 for the radius squared of the black hole r^2 = 2GM/c^2. Here G is the Newton constant of gravity and c the speed of light and M the mass of the black hole. In addition k is the Boltzmann constant and L_p is the Planck length given by

        L_p = sqrt{G?/c^3}

        If we put this all together the entropy of the black hole is S = 2?kN, where N is the number of Planck units of area on the black hole horizon. The black hole then has N bits of information.

        With respect to the big bang if black holes were produced it means there is a lot of initial data involved with the big bang. There event horizons would carry quantum bits or bits of information proportional to their areas. This becomes a problem theoretically, so while this not a disproof of black hole emerging in the big bang it does suggest this is unlikely. Also inflation in the early universe would not favor the occurrence of black holes.


      • wjwbudro says:

        Thank you for trying to bring me back to reality. I shouldn’t post after a couple beers. Regarding your reply to @magnus.nyborg, is there a consensus as to the volume of the universe when this initial birthing took place? Gravity would certainly be more influencing in those closer quarters giving more and faster collisions/mergers of the “not so massive” BH’s born from the “not so massive” PopIII stars resulting in a quick growth of the more massive black holes and galaxy formation.

    • newSteveZodiac says:

      I wonder what matter is being accreted to give rise to the energy, my knowledge is not as detailed as yours but isn’t it theorised that there were not many heavy elements at that time despite some pop3 supernovae? Is it possible to get any info from spectroscopy on AGNs to see what they are swallowing which might give insight into the amount of heavy elements around?
      I’m also puzzled because black hole accretion gives rise to lots of x-rays, is the red-shift so great that they are infra red now?.

      • lcrowell says:

        The matter is 75% hydrogen and 25% helium, with traces of lithium. There had not yet been much nucleosythesis. This particular sighting involves z ~ 1 or a bit larger, so the wavelength spreading or redshift is about ½. As a result blue light would be observed as red and most X-rays would still be X-rays, where softer X-rays would appears as high UV.

        The curious thing is that this influences the possible mass of black holes. If black holes are 10 billion solar masses now this means they could end up much larger. The upper observational bound is about 10 billion solar masses, but there could be some larger.

        Supermassive black holes will endure for a long time into the future. The time for their evaporation can be derived to be

        t = 5120?G^2M^3/?c^6 = 8.4×10^{-17)(M/kg)^3 seconds

        where for the sun with mass = 2×10^{30}kg the evaporation time is 6.7×10^{74} sec or 2.1×10^{67} years. We can compute the time a 1 and 10 billion solar mass black hole might decay as 2.1×10^{94} years and the time for a 10 billion solar mass black hole to decay as 2.1×10^{97}years. If the SMBHs consume most of the luminous matter in their galaxies these may grow to 100 billion solar mass black holes in, say in 10^{20} years and these will decay away in about 10^{102} years. If super clusters of galaxies become largely consumed into a black hole, one up to 10^{14} solar masses, the decay time would be close to 10^{110} years. An extremely massive black hole of 10^{14} solar masses that might exist in the distant future would have a horizon radius of 100 light years.


      • zetetic elench says:

        heavy metrics LC!

      • lcrowell says:

        It is possible the SMBHs we observe now are just pip squeaks compared to what is to come. It is not too hard to show that the cosmological horizon will by the decay of the de Sitter vacuum will retreat to twice its current distance in about 10^{124} years.


    • space_sailor says:

      more questions about our understanding about early Universe: http://phys.org/news/2012-10-astronomers-dusty-galaxies-ancient-epoch.html

      “(..)”We found something we wouldn’t expect,” Finkelstein said. “Although dust can form quickly, I don’t think many people expected galaxies at only 800 million years
      after the Big Bang to have a lot of dust. These observations caused us
      to change our thinking.” (..)”

      “(…)And finding a significant amount of “heavy metal” dust in these early massive galaxies means they must have been forming stars for a while, Finkelstein said. That’s because heavy elements were not created in the Big Bang itself. They are built up over time inside stars, as they fuse lighter elements into heavier ones through nuclear fusion at their cores. When a massive star runs through all of this nuclear fuel, it explodes as a spectacular supernova, spewing these heavy elements into the galaxy.(..)”

      • lcrowell says:

        That is a bit of a mystery. Maybe those PopIII stars cook up more elements than thought. That also leaves the question of shy PopII stars, the next generation of stars have such low metallicity.


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