Webb Area Telescope’s Quest for Primeval Black Holes

James Webb Space Telescope Artist Conception

Artist conception of the James Webb Area Telescope. Credit score: NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

The Webb Area Telescope staff continues to work on commissioning the science devices, the ultimate step earlier than beginning science operations in the summertime. We not too long ago noticed the spectacular picture of the black gap within the heart of our Milky Approach galaxy, taken by the Occasion Horizon Telescope. One of many puzzles of contemporary astronomy is how each massive galaxy got here to have a gargantuan central black gap, and the way a few of these black holes are surprisingly massive even at very early instances of the universe. We requested Roberto Maiolino, a member of Webb’s Close to-Infrared Spectrometer (NIRSpec) instrument science staff, to inform us how Webb will assist to reply a few of these questions.

“One of the vital thrilling areas of discovery that Webb is about to open is the seek for primeval black holes within the early universe. These are the seeds of the way more large black holes that astronomers have present in galactic nuclei. Most (in all probability all) galaxies host black holes at their facilities, with lots starting from thousands and thousands to billions of instances the mass of our Solar. These supermassive black holes have grown to be so massive each by gobbling matter round them and likewise by the merging of smaller black holes.

“An intriguing current discovering has been the invention of hyper-massive black holes, with lots of a number of billion photo voltaic lots, already in place when the universe was solely about 700 million years outdated, a small fraction of its present age of 13.8 billion years. It is a puzzling end result, as at such early epochs there may be not sufficient time to develop such hyper-massive black holes, based on normal theories. Some eventualities have been proposed to unravel this conundrum.

“One risk is that black holes, ensuing from the demise of the very first era of stars within the early universe, have accreted materials at exceptionally excessive charges. One other state of affairs is that primeval, pristine fuel clouds, not but enriched by chemical components heavier than helium, may immediately collapse to kind a black hole with a mass of a few hundred thousand solar masses, and subsequently accrete matter to evolve into the hyper-massive black holes observed at later epochs. Finally, dense, nuclear star clusters at the centers of baby galaxies may have produced intermediate mass black hole seeds, via stellar collisions or merging of stellar-mass black holes, and then become much more massive via accretion.

Populations of Known Black Holes in Early Universe

This illustration shows the populations of known black holes (large black dots) and the candidate black hole progenitors in the early universe (shaded regions). Credit: Roberto Maiolino, University of Cambridge

“Webb is about to open a completely new discovery space in this area. It is possible that the first black hole seeds originally formed in the ‘baby universe,’ within just a few million years after the big bang. Webb is the perfect ‘time machine’ to learn about these primeval objects. Its exceptional sensitivity makes Webb capable of detecting extremely distant galaxies, and because of the time required for the light emitted by the galaxies to travel to us, we will see them as they were in the remote past.

“Webb’s NIRSpec instrument is particularly well suited to identify primeval black hole seeds. My colleagues in the NIRSpec Instrument Science Team and I will be searching for their signatures during ‘active’ phases, when they are voraciously gobbling matter and growing rapidly. In these phases the material surrounding them becomes extremely hot and luminous and ionizes the atoms in their surroundings and in their host galaxies.

“NIRSpec will disperse the light from these systems into spectra, or ‘rainbows.’ The rainbow of active black hole seeds will be characterised by specific ‘fingerprints,’ features of highly ionized atoms. NIRSpec will also measure the velocity of the gas orbiting in the vicinity of these primeval black holes. Smaller black holes will be characterized by lower orbital velocities. Black hole seeds formed in pristine clouds will be identified by the absence of features associated with any element heavier than helium.

“I look forward to using Webb’s unprecedented capabilities to search for these black hole progenitors, with the ultimate goal of understanding their nature and origin. The early universe and the realm of black holes seeds is a completely uncharted territory that my colleagues and I are very excited to explore with Webb.”

Roberto Maiolino, professor of experimental astrophysics and director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge

Written by:

  • Jonathan Gardner, Webb deputy senior project scientist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
  • Stefanie Milam, Webb deputy project scientist for planetary science, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

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