Astronomers discover 83 supermassive black holes in the early universe

March 13, 2019

Astronomers from Japan, Taiwan and Princeton University have discovered 83 quasars powered by supermassive black holes in the distant universe, from a time when the universe was less than 10 percent of its present age.

"It is remarkable that such massive dense objects were able to form so soon after the Big Bang," said Michael Strauss, a professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University who is one of the co-authors of the study. "Understanding how black holes can form in the early universe, and just how common they are, is a challenge for our cosmological models."

This finding increases the number of black holes known at that epoch considerably, and reveals, for the first time, how common they are early in the universe's history. In addition, it provides new insight into the effect of black holes on the physical state of gas in the early universe in its first billion years. The research appears in a series of five papers published in The Astrophysical Journal and the Publications of the Astronomical Observatory of Japan.

Supermassive black holes, found at the centers of galaxies, can be millions or even billions of times more massive than the sun. While they are prevalent today, it is unclear when they first formed, and how many existed in the distant early universe. A supermassive black hole becomes visible when gas accretes onto it, causing it to shine as a "quasar."  Previous studies have been sensitive only to the very rare, most luminous quasars, and thus the most massive black holes. The new discoveries probe the population of fainter quasars, powered by black holes with masses comparable to most black holes seen in the present-day universe.

The research team used data taken with a cutting-edge instrument, "Hyper Suprime-Cam" (HSC), mounted on the Subaru Telescope of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, which is located on the summit of Maunakea in Hawaii. HSC has a gigantic field-of-view -- 1.77 degrees across, or seven times the area of the full moon -- mounted on one of the largest telescopes in the world. The HSC team is surveying the sky over the course of 300 nights of telescope time, spread over five years.

The team selected distant quasar candidates from the sensitive HSC survey data. They then carried out an intensive observational campaign to obtain spectra of those candidates, using three telescopes: the Subaru Telescope; the Gran Telescopio Canarias on the island of La Palma in the Canaries, Spain; and the Gemini South Telescope in Chile. The survey has revealed 83 previously unknown very distant quasars. Together with 17 quasars already known in the survey region, the researchers found that there is roughly one supermassive black hole per cubic giga-light-year -- in other words, if you chunked the universe into imaginary cubes that are a billion light-years on a side, each would hold one supermassive black hole.

The sample of quasars in this study are about 13 billion light-years away from the Earth; in other words, we are seeing them as they existed 13 billion years ago. As the Big Bang took place 13.8 billion years ago, we are effectively looking back in time, seeing these quasars and supermassive black holes as they appeared only about 800 million years after the creation of the (known) universe.

It is widely accepted that the hydrogen in the universe was once neutral, but was "reionized" -- split into its component protons and electrons -- around the time when the first generation of stars, galaxies and supermassive black holes were born, in the first few hundred million years after the Big Bang. This is a milestone of cosmic history, but astronomers still don't know what provided the incredible amount of energy required to cause the reionization. A compelling hypothesis suggests that there were many more quasars in the early universe than detected previously, and it is their integrated radiation that reionized the universe.

"However, the number of quasars we observed shows that this is not the case," explained Robert Lupton, a 1985 Princeton Ph.D. alumnus who is a senior research scientist in astrophysical sciences. "The number of quasars seen is significantly less than needed to explain the reionization." Reionization was therefore caused by another energy source, most likely numerous galaxies that started to form in the young universe.

The present study was made possible by the world-leading survey ability of Subaru and HSC. "The quasars we discovered will be an interesting subject for further follow-up observations with current and future facilities," said Yoshiki Matsuoka, a former Princeton postdoctoral researcher now at Ehime University in Japan, who led the study. "We will also learn about the formation and early evolution of supermassive black holes, by comparing the measured number density and luminosity distribution with predictions from theoretical models."

Based on the results achieved so far, the team is looking forward to finding yet more distant black holes and discovering when the first supermassive black hole appeared in the universe.
-end-
The HSC collaboration includes astronomers from Japan, Taiwan and Princeton University. The HSC instrumentation and software were developed by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ), the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (Kavli IPMU), the University of Tokyo, the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK), the Academia Sinica Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan (ASIAA), and Princeton University. Funding was contributed by the FIRST program from Japanese Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), the Toray Science Foundation, NAOJ, Kavli IPMU, KEK, ASIAA, and Princeton University.

The results of the present study are published in the following five papers -- the second paper in particular.

[1] "Discovery of the First Low-luminosity Quasar at z > 7", by Yoshiki Matsuoka1, Masafusa Onoue2, Nobunari Kashikawa3,4,5, Michael A Strauss6, Kazushi Iwasawa7, Chien-Hsiu Lee8, Masatoshi Imanishi4,5, Tohru Nagao and 40 co-authors, including Princeton astrophysicists James Bosch, James Gunn, Robert Lupton and Paul Price, appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters, 872 (2019), 2 (DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/ab0216).

[2] "Subaru High-z Exploration of Low-luminosity Quasars (SHELLQs). V. Quasar Luminosity Function and Contribution to Cosmic Reionization at z = 6," appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of The Astrophysical Journal, 869 (2018), 150 (DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/aaee7a).

[3] "Subaru High-z Exploration of Low-luminosity Quasars (SHELLQs). IV. Discovery of 41 Quasars and Luminous Galaxies at 5.7 ? z ? 6.9," was published July 3, 2018 in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series, 237 (2018), 5 (DOI: 10.3847/1538-4365/aac724).

[4] "Subaru High-z Exploration of Low-Luminosity Quasars (SHELLQs). II. Discovery of 32 quasars and luminous galaxies at 5.7 < z ? 6.8," was published July 5, 2017 in Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan, 70 (2018), S35 (DOI: 10.1093/pasj/psx046).

[5] "Subaru High-z Exploration of Low-luminosity Quasars (SHELLQs). I. Discovery of 15 Quasars and Bright Galaxies at 5.7 < z < 6.9", was published Aug. 25, 2016 in The Astrophysical Journal, 828 (2016), 26 (DOI: 10.3847/0004-637X/828/1/26).

Princeton University

Related Black Holes Articles from Brightsurf:

The black hole always chirps twice: New clues deciphering the shape of black holes
A team of gravitational-wave scientists led by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav) reveal that when two black holes collide and merge, the remnant black hole 'chirps' not once, but multiple times, emitting gravitational waves--intense ripples in the fabric space and time--that inform us about its shape.

Black holes? They are like a hologram
Spherical, smooth and simple according to the theory of relativity, or extremely complex and full of information as, according to quantum laws, Stephen Hawking used to say?

Under pressure, black holes feast
A new, Yale-led study shows that some supermassive black holes actually thrive under pressure.

Staining cycles with black holes
In the treatment of tumors, microenvironment plays an important role.

Black holes sometimes behave like conventional quantum systems
A group of Skoltech researchers led by Professor Anatoly Dymarsky have studied the emergence of generalized thermal ensembles in quantum systems with additional symmetries.

Scientists may have discovered whole new class of black holes
New research shows that astronomers' search for black holes might have been missing an entire class of black holes that they didn't know existed.

Are black holes made of dark energy?
Two University of Hawaii at Manoa researchers have identified and corrected a subtle error that was made when applying Einstein's equations to model the growth of the universe.

Telescopes in space for even sharper images of black holes
Astronomers have just managed to take the first image of a black hole, and now the next challenge facing them is how to take even sharper images, so that Einstein's Theory of General Relativity can be tested.

Can entangled qubits be used to probe black holes?
Information escapes from black holes via Hawking radiation, so it should be possible to capture it and use it to reconstruct what fell in: if given time longer than the age of the universe.

How black holes power plasma jets
Cosmic robbery powers the jets streaming from a black hole, new simulations reveal.

Read More: Black Holes News and Black Holes Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.