New Simulation Explains how Supermassive Black Holes Grew so Quickly

One of the main scientific objectives of next-generation observatories (like the James Webb Space Telescope) has been to observe the first galaxies in the Universe – those that existed at Cosmic Dawn. This period is when the first stars, galaxies, and black holes in our Universe formed, roughly 50 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang. By examining how these galaxies formed and evolved during the earliest cosmological periods, astronomers will have a complete picture of how the Universe has changed with time.

As addressed in previous articles, the results of Webb‘s most distant observations have turned up a few surprises. In addition to revealing that galaxies formed rapidly in the early Universe, astronomers also noticed these galaxies had particularly massive supermassive black holes (SMBH) at their centers. This was particularly confounding since, according to conventional models, these galaxies and black holes didn’t have enough time to form. In a recent study, a team led by Penn State astronomers has developed a model that could explain how SMBHs grew so quickly in the early Universe.

The research team was led by W. Niel Brandt, the Eberly Family Chair Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State’s Eberly College of Science. Their research is described in two papers presented at the 244th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS224), which took place from June 9th to June 13th in Madison, Wisconsin. Their first paper, “Mapping the Growth of Supermassive Black Holes as a Function of Galaxy Stellar Mass and Redshift,” appeared on March 29th in The Astrophysical Journal, while the second is pending publication. Fan Zou, an Eberly College graduate student, was the lead author of both papers.

Illustration of an active quasar. What role does its dark matter halo play in activating the quasar? Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Illustration of an active quasar. New research shows that SMBHs eat rapidly enough to trigger them. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

As they note in their papers, SMBHs grow through two main channels: by accreting cold gas from their host galaxy or merging with the SMBHs of other galaxies. When it comes to accretion, previous research has shown that a black hole’s accretion rate (BHAR) is strongly linked to its galaxy’s stellar mass and the redshift of its general stellar population. “Supermassive black holes in galaxy centers have millions-to-billions of times the mass of the Sun,” explained Zhou in a recent NASA press release. How do they become such monsters? This is a question that astronomers have been studying for decades, but it has been difficult to track all the ways black holes can grow reliably.”

For their research, the team relied on forefront X-ray sky survey data obtained by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the ESA’s X-ray Multi-Mirror Mission-Newton (XMM-Newton), and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics’ eROSITA telescope. They measured the accretion-driven growth in a sample of 8000 active galactic nuclei (AGNs) located in 1.3 million galaxies. This was combined with IllustrisTNG, a suite of state-of-the-art cosmological simulations that model galaxy formation, evolution, and mergers from Cosmic Dawn to the present. This combined approach has provided the best modeling to date of SMBH growth over the past 12 billion years. Said Brandt:

“During the process of consuming gas from their hosting galaxies, black holes radiate strong X-rays, and this is the key to tracking their growth by accretion. We measured the accretion-driven growth using X-ray sky survey data accumulated over more than 20 years from three of the most powerful X-ray facilities ever launched into space.

“In our hybrid approach, we combine the observed growth by accretion with the simulated growth through mergers to reproduce the growth history of supermassive black holes. With this new approach, we believe we have produced the most realistic picture of the growth of supermassive black holes up to the present day.”

This still image shows the timeline running from the Big Bang on the right towards the present on the left. In the middle is the Reionization Period where the initial bubbles caused the cosmic dawn. Credit: NASA SVS

Their results indicate that SMBHs of all masses grew much more rapidly when the Universe was younger and that accretion was the main driver of black hole growth in most cases. They also noted that mergers made notable secondary contributions, especially the largest SMBHs during the past 5 billion years. This suggests that new SMBHs kept emerging during the early Universe, but the formation process was all but settled by ca. 7 billion years ago. As Zou concluded:

“With our approach, we can track how central black holes in the local universe most likely grew over cosmic time. As an example, we considered the growth of the supermassive black hole in the center of our Milky Way Galaxy, which has a mass of 4 million solar masses. Our results indicate that our Galaxy’s black hole most likely grew relatively late in cosmic time.”

In addition to Zou and Brandt, the international team comprised researchers from the Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos and the Departments of Physics, Statistics, and Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State. Other team members included researchers from the University of Michigan, the Nanjing University in China, the University of Science and Technology of China, the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Further Reading: Chandra X-ray Observatory, The Astrophysical Journal