Monstrous black hole traps six ancient galaxies in a cosmic ‘spider’s web’

The bright galaxies are trapped in a cosmic web of gas that surrounds the quasar  SDSS J103027.09+052455.0

ESO/L. Calçada

The first billion years of the universe was about as chaotic as Tuesday’s first presidential debate. Galaxies were forming, gas was flowing… It was a real time. While we won’t want to look back on Tuesday too often, we do like to look back in time. And, in a cosmic sense, Earth is perfectly positioned to do so. Because of how long it takes light to travel across the universe, our telescopes can pick up the faint signals of what life was like in the universe’s very early days. 

On Thursday, astronomers announced the discovery of a massive, intriguing structure from when the universe was just 900 million years old. The structure, about 300 times the size of the Milky Way, contains a supermassive black hole that has ensnared six nearby galaxies in a cosmic “spider’s web” of gas. It’s shedding new light on how these monstrous beasts of the early universe can grow so rapidly.

In a new study, published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics on Thursday, an international collaboration of astronomers detail the environment surrounding the quasar “SDSS J1030+0524” (J1030, for short). Quasars are incredibly bright sources of light in the sky and contain a supermassive black hole at their center surrounded by a huge disk of gas known as an “accretion disk.” 

Utilizing the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO’s) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile and telescopes in the US, astronomers examined J1030, which resides in a deep, dark corner of space. The supermassive black hole, which has one billion times more mass than our sun, is huge — and that’s unusual because it’s also very young. 

“This research was mainly driven by the desire to understand some of the most challenging astronomical objects — supermassive black holes in the early Universe,” said Marco Mignoli, an astronomer at the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in Bologna, Italy, in a press release. A number of huge black holes have been found in the earliest eras of the universe, but astronomers haven’t quite been able to pin down what was enabling them to grow to such mammoth sizes.

Studying J1030, Mignoli and his team found a series of galaxies surrounding the supermassive black hole all intricately connected by filaments of gas. “The cosmic web filaments are like spider’s web threads,” he explained. “The galaxies stand and grow where the filaments cross, and streams of gas — available to fuel both the galaxies and the central supermassive black hole — can flow along the filaments.”  

The large structure, the team reason, might help feed the black hole with the space food it needs to grow to such large sizes. The finding, the team suggest, provides evidence that “dark matter halos,” invisible spheres of dark matter, are key to formation of black holes and galaxies in the early universe. It’s these halos which provide a type of skeleton where matter, like gas, collects. The gas flows through this invisible skeleton and eventually falls into the black hole, where it gets gobbled up. More gas and galaxies falling into the black hole means a bigger black hole. 

Potentially, many more galaxies reside in the large structure around J1030. “We believe we have just seen the tip of the iceberg, and that the few galaxies discovered so far around this supermassive black hole are only the brightest ones,” said Barbara Balmaverde, an astronomer at INAF and co-author of the study. It’s hoped the ESO’s next-generation telescope, the Extremely Large Telescope, can observe light from faint objects in J1030’s vicinity. It’s expected to come online in 2025. 

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