Even Early Galaxies Had Supermassive Black Holes

We’re learning more about black holes and the early universe all the time, with the help of all the amazing ground-based telescopes astronomers now have at their disposal. Astronomers think that many – perhaps all – galaxies in the universe contain massive black holes at their centers. New observations with the Submillimeter Array now suggest that such colossal black holes were common even 12 billion years ago, when the universe was only 1.7 billion years old and galaxies were just beginning to form. The new conclusion comes from the discovery of two distant galaxies, both with black holes at their centers, which are involved in a spectacular collision.

4C60.07, the first of the galaxies to be discovered, came to astronomers’ attention because of its bright radio emission. This radio signal is one telltale sign of a quasar – a rapidly spinning black hole that is feeding on its home galaxy.

When 4C60.07 was first studied, astronomers thought that hydrogen gas surrounding the black hole was undergoing a burst of star formation, forming stars at a remarkable rate – the equivalent of 5,000 suns every year. This vigorous activity was revealed by the infrared glow from smoky debris left over when the largest stars rapidly died.

The latest research, using the keen vision of the Submillimeter Array of eight radio antennas located in Hawaii, revealed a surprise. 4C60.07 is not forming stars after all. Indeed, its stars appear to be relatively old and quiescent. Instead, prodigious star formation is taking place in a previously unseen companion galaxy, rich in gas and deeply enshrouded in dust, which also has a colossal black hole at its center.

“This new image reveals two galaxies where we only expected to find one,” said Rob Ivison (UK Astronomy Technology Centre), lead author of the study that will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. “Remarkably, both galaxies contain supermassive black holes at their centers, each capable of powering a billion, billion, billion light bulbs. The implications are wide-reaching: you can’t help wondering how many other colossal black holes may be lurking unseen in the distant universe.”

Due to the finite speed of light, we see the two galaxies as they existed in the distant past, less than 2 billion years after the Big Bang. The new image from the Submillimeter Array captures the moment when 4C60.07 ripped a stream of material from its neighboring galaxy, as shown in the accompanying artist’s conception. By now the galaxies have merged to create a football-shaped elliptical galaxy. Their black holes are likely to have merged and formed a single, more massive black hole.

The galaxies themselves show surprising differences. One is a dead system that has formed all of its stars already and used up its gaseous fuel. The second galaxy is still alive and well, holding plenty of dust and gas that can form new stars.

“These two galaxies are fraternal twins. Both are about the size of the Milky Way, but each one is unique,” said Steve Willner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, a co-author of the paper.

“The superb resolution of the Submillimeter Array was key to our discovery,” he added.

Source: Smithsonian CfA

22 Replies to “Even Early Galaxies Had Supermassive Black Holes”

  1. In my totally noneducated theory, I always felt that black holes were really the first manufestion of matter in the early universe and that the galaxies formed from “Hawking radiation” of the fathering black hole making the universe unimaginably older than is currently thought

  2. Along with Null Dragon’s thoughts, I have always wondered why these massive black holes are always at the center the galaxy. It makes perfect sense if the black hole were there first and the matter that now forms the galaxy were pulled toward it, creating the classic bathtube wirlpool effect we see in spiral galaxies, but I would have anticipated if this were the way it happens we’d see spiral galaxies out there getting ripped in half as black holes appear in other parts of a galaxy and start taking a piece of the pie for themselves. But instead we mostly see spiral or irregular galaxies getting pulled across space and colliding with each other.

  3. Well, if the supermassive blackholes did form first and the matter of the galaxies was pulled towards them, then supermassive blackholes are essentially the seeds of galaxies. If this line of thinking is correct, then shortly after the Big Bang there would be no galaxies until supermassive blackholes gathered enough stars and gas to form them. By this time, the universe would have expanded enough that it would look a like it does now — mostly empty with galaxies (or rather proto-galactic clouds of gas lit up by young stars surrounding supermassive blackholes) lining the surfaces of vast empty voids like soap bubbles. In a universe like this one, the likelihood that a rogue supermassive blackhole would suddenly barrel through a galaxy would be quite low and no black hole that formed from a supernova explosion would be too small to compete with the gravity of the local supermassive blackhole.

  4. This has been the major concensus for a few years now. Quasars with a lot to munch on form stars at an alarming rate. It also helps answer why stars towards the outter areas of a galaxy move at the rate they do, since they are too far out for gravity from the super massive black hole to have this affect on them. It makes more sense, many of these stars (well.. more likely the parents of outter stars) have migrated outwards from the center… maintaining their momentum.
    However, now examples of this process are being found visually, and confirming the theory.

  5. If black holes were formed first before galaxies and just after the Big Bang, and the “purpose of the Large Hadron Collider is to create conditions that existed during the fraction of a nanosecond after the “Big Bang” that created the universe.” doesn’t that imply that black holes might be one of the results of running the Large Hadron Collider?

  6. either SM black holes were a product of the big bang, (or shortly thereafter) or they formed very quickly in the early universe

  7. Leaning more to the “Simplest” answer is usually the correct one… If we were this ultra dense singularity of matter that ripped itself apart during what we call the big bang, would it not stand to reason that the pieces that flew off in all directions were ultra dense as well? Good insight as to how galaxies eventually formed, but this could explain too why scientists have observed a “Dark Ages” phase in our universe’s evolution. Picture billions if not trillions of black holes flying all over the place.

  8. The really simple story of itty bitty black holes forming within the LHC and being possible by thinking back to the time of the big bang when gravity was just as powerful as the other forces. So if we can recreate this moment by b-slapping some hadrons back to the big bang we may see gravity as it separates from being part of the ‘super force’… possibly being strong enough just momentarily to create a black hole. However, once gravity separates from the other forces it suddenly becomes much much MUCH MUCH weaker, thus this little black hole would no longer have the mass required and it disappears. …but it would be WAAAY kewl!

  9. As long as we are in a speculative mood; could it be that these “super massive” primordial black holes were simply the “shrapnel” of the so called “big bang” singularity (picture it as you wish) and the particle soup that formed from this energy (which btw dwarfs the level the LHC will ever reach) eventually ended up as normal star stuff which then gravitationally spiraled around the smbh? The smaller rogue fragments were simply absorbed into the systems and others are still wayward as have been speculated.
    What about the cause of the “big bang”? Suppose the “initial conditions” was an antimatter symmetry and then at some point “the singularity” a nuance that broke this symmetry occurred and “bang”! Now we have these anti matter fragments (smbhs) which are now continually breaking symmetry and expelling the resultant “normal matter” via Hawking radiation.
    What an imagination I seem to have acquired here on UT.

  10. Simple short answer.
    First generation stars were made only of hydrogen (there was no other molecules in the universe), and were really really big and burned up really fast.

    When they died many created black holes just as they do today.

    However, the neighborhood was a bit different… stars were much closer together, as were black holes… so conjunctions between them were likely much more common… thus it didn’t take a (relatively) long time for many black holes to merge and get really large.

    In this process of consuming other black holes/quasars especially in areas with a lot of gas/dusts… the universe was a perfect soup around these large black holes for creating more and more stars very rapidly, thus spawning the first galaxies.

    The first galaxies also were likely much closer together, so they and their black holes merged and became larger with each merger and consumption.

  11. Hi Will,

    Looks like we both have a good imagination. I like how you wrote your comment though. adds a little more depth than mine.

    As they say; “Great minds…”

  12. Well, I was told somewhere that the early Galaxies were Hydrogen then Lithium, etc; much different then today’s spectrum. So my first response when I read the blog was to think like Aodhhan but Will, I think may also be right: a combination of both?

  13. Thanks Aodhhan,
    I understand that H was the 1st derivative of the cooling soup and that the 1st stars were short lived giant H stars and that nuclear synthesis from these 1st stars led to periodic zoo we have today. However, 1st generation H stars had mass and would most probably end up migrating toward the higher gravitational pull of the smbh(s).
    Unless I missed something, the article was based on the discovery that these smbh galaxies formed earlier than the current cosmology would have predicted.

  14. How about this. in order to satisfy both postulations. Suppose that the force that caused ultra dense primordial black holes, also causes some of the ultra dense matter to “Unlock”. Now because of expansion, we have a non baryonic source of “mass” in the early universe, which we quantify as dark matter today. Now as mentioned before, the universe was quite “small” compared to today. I know I am throwing 3 entirely different concepts at once, but this becomes important later.

    Now picture a rose. The bud, being pre-big bang universe, is small and tightly packed. Just like the flower, the universe expanded. Think of the petals. This is what I use to describe dark matter. The petals themselves are in intricate patterns, and contours. Where the rose is similar to the universe, we can observe expansion, by seeing the space between the petals.

    Ok, now I am done the analogy part. So what I postulate is that as the universe expanded, the dark matter “petals” laid down the master pattern for how all matter would be distributed. As expansion occured, the distance between the “petals” creates a vacuum, if we rob a bit from Boyle. We have already postulated that primordial smbh’s are flying all over the place. Well if there was force enough to rip the universe a new one (Sorry… couldn’t resist) it would stand to reason that that force would cause matter to be sheared away to be all on it’s own. The simplest atom is Hydrogen. The hydrogen would be dispersed from the big bang explosion similar to how we observe a supernova remnant, without the heavy matter. Now we have postulated that we have all this matter all in close proximity in the beginning due to a small universe. Gravity waves, Radiation emissions, cause the simple gas to congeal, and voila. stars arrive 400 million years into things. Now we all know that black holes attract matter around them, and when this matter entered a visible realm, ie. stars, it would orbit the smbhs. the smbhs ride on the “petals” for where they are in the universe. This now explains why we observe huge volumes of void space.

    How’s that for theory tying?

  15. sorry.. wrote that too late at night. let me know if I need to clarify. Will can probably do it better

  16. “Remarkably, both galaxies contain supermassive black holes at their centers, each capable of powering a billion, billion, billion light bulbs.”

    The sun is capable of powering 3.8 million billion billion light bulbs. The nearby star Rigel, which is about 60,000 times brighter than the sun, is capable of powering 200 billion billion billion light bulbs. Are we to understand that these distant quasars are 200 times dimmer than Rigel? If so, the sudden increase in our observational skills is by far the most interesting point of this article.

  17. I’m a bit confused. The article says that there is evidence that “colossal” Black holes existed as early as 1.7 Billion years after the Big Bang. Since Black holes are burned up stars that implode internally, and since “colossal” Black holes will require “colossal” stars that are large enough to form “colossal” Black holes when they die. Logic dictates that these “colossal” stars will burn longer than 1.7 Billion years before forming “colossal” Black holes?

    If the star that formed these early time Black holes were not “colossal” when they burned up and formed Black holes, then the Black holes that formed will be too small and will take them longer than 1.7 Billion years to suck enough enough matter to become “colossal”? Either way, that’s earlier (encompasses) than the time the Big Bang took place?

    Question: Is it possible that Black holes were in existence prior to and at the time of the Big Bang? Can the Big Bang be actually a “singular” super massive, colossal Black hole that swallowed an immense amount of gasses and mass then collapsed upon itself to the point of generating the Big Bang?

    Searching for theories and answers…
    [email protected]

  18. How do you know that we are not inside a black hole?

    Are they not simply a critical mass of energy that has broken down the inter-atomic forces that hold atomic structures in form?
    That hold the very atom itself in volume…
    That holds the electrons apart from the protons, and that holds true the electron existence as one would describe it in magnetic theory…
    Basically crunching mass to the point where it approaches a finite volume. Well, as far close to finite as we can observe. Perhaps even forming time itself.

    You may be focusing on the appearances that black holes have mass – yet we are only viewing the extent to which light is drawn closely enough to be accelerated by force.

    I think that answers would be attained faster if we were to calculate the rate of change (from earth point of reference) that the universe volume is accelerating at. At least to what we can surmise. Obviously if light is actually a constant then the volume would be accelerating due to a vector radius changing the size of the sphere. But is that rate of change constant? Or is the formula actually observed to be integration and/or a derivative? If you can accurately theories this for me, then I may be able to adorn you some answers. I think that the question in of itself may beg of the answer. If you can devise the formula to the rate of change, then I can tell you the critical mass that results in a black holes formation.

    So much mass held together with so much more force that the universe (light) can not hold it apart within the relative argument of existence and functioning laws of our universe…

    I gave Hawkins his paradox years ago… the dude knows one – I still have seven more…. <|;-)

    Keep up the good work guys, let me know the extents…. You have to see out to see in.



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