Astronomers Detect Supermassive Black Hole Precursor Lurking in Archival Hubble Data

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Astronomers Detect Supermassive Black Hole Precursor Lurking in Archival Hubble Data

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An international team of astronomers using archival data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and other space- and ground-based observatories have discovered a unique object in the distant, early Universe that is a crucial link between star-forming galaxies and the emergence of the earliest supermassive black holes. This object is the first of its kind to be discovered so early in the Universe’s history, and had been lurking unnoticed in one of the best-studied areas of the night sky.

Astronomers have struggled to understand the emergence of supermassive black holes in the early Universe ever since these objects were discovered at distances corresponding to a time only 750 million years after the Big Bang [1]. Rapidly growing black holes in dusty, early star-forming galaxies are predicted by theories and computer simulations but until now they had not been observed. Now, however, astronomers have reported the discovery of an object — which they name GNz7q — that is believed to be the first such rapidly growing black hole to be found in the early Universe. Archival Hubble data from the Advanced Camera for Surveys helped the team study the compact ultraviolet emission from the black hole's accretion disc and to determine that GNz7q existed just 750 million years after the Big Bang.

“Our analysis suggests that GNz7q is the first example of a rapidly-growing black hole in the dusty core of a starburst galaxy at an epoch close to the earliest super massive black hole known in the Universe,” explains Seiji Fujimoto, an astronomer at the Niels Bohr Institute of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and lead author of the paper describing this discovery. “The object’s properties across the electromagnetic spectrum are in excellent agreement with predictions from theoretical simulations.”

Current theories predict that supermassive black holes begin their lives in the dust-shrouded cores of vigorously star-forming “starburst” galaxies before expelling the surrounding gas and dust and emerging as extremely luminous quasars. Whilst they are extremely rare, examples of both dusty starburst galaxies and luminous quasars have been detected in the early Universe. The team believes that GNz7q could be the “missing link” between these two classes of objects.

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Frederick J. Barnett
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