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What came first: black holes or galaxies?

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An illustration of a magnetic field generated by a supermassive black hole in the early universe, showing turbulent plasma flows turning gas clouds into stars. Credit: ROBERTO MOLAR CANDANOSA / JHU

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An illustration of a magnetic field generated by a supermassive black hole in the early universe, showing turbulent plasma flows turning gas clouds into stars. Credit: ROBERTO MOLAR CANDANOSA / JHU

Black holes not only existed at the dawn of time, they gave rise to new stars and fueled the formation of galaxies, a new analysis of data from the James Webb Space Telescope suggests.

The findings upend theories about how black holes shape the cosmos, challenging the classical understanding that they formed after the first stars and galaxies emerged. Instead, black holes could have dramatically accelerated the birth of new stars during the universe’s first 50 million years, a fleeting period within its 13.8 billion-year history.

“We know that these monstrous black holes exist in the center of galaxies near our Milky Way, but the big surprise now is that they were also present at the beginning of the universe and were almost like building blocks or seeds of the first galaxies,” said lead author Joseph Silk, professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University and the Paris Institute of Astrophysics, Sorbonne University. “They really drove everything, like giant amplifiers of star formation, which is a radical change from what we thought possible before, to the point where this could completely alter our understanding of how galaxies form.”

The work was recently published in the Letters from astrophysical journals.

Distant galaxies in the early universe, observed through the Webb telescope, appear much brighter than scientists predicted and reveal an unusually high number of young stars and supermassive black holes, Silk said.

Conventional wisdom holds that black holes formed after the collapse of supermassive stars and that galaxies formed after the first stars illuminated the dark early universe. But Silk’s team’s analysis suggests that black holes and galaxies coexisted and influenced each other’s fate during the first 100 million years. If the entire history of the universe were a 12-month calendar, those years would be like the first days of January, Silk said.

“We are arguing that black holes expel shredded clouds of gas, turning them into stars and greatly accelerating the rate of star formation,” Silk said. “Otherwise, it is very difficult to understand where these bright galaxies came from because they were normally smaller in the early universe. Why should they be forming stars so quickly?”

Black holes are regions of space where gravity is so strong that nothing can escape its pull, not even light. Because of this force, they generate powerful magnetic fields that cause violent storms, expel turbulent plasma and ultimately act as huge particle accelerators, Silk said. This process, she said, is probably why Webb’s detectors have detected more black holes and bright galaxies than scientists anticipated.

“We can’t see these violent winds or jets very, very far away, but we know they must be present because we see many black holes in the early stages of the universe,” Silk explained. “These huge winds from black holes crush nearby gas clouds and turn them into stars. That’s the missing link that explains why these early galaxies are so much brighter than we expected.”

Silk’s team predicts that the young universe had two phases. During the first phase, high-speed outflows from black holes accelerated star formation, and then in a second phase, the outflows slowed down. A few hundred million years after the Big Bang, gas clouds collapsed due to magnetic storms from supermassive black holes, and new stars were born at a rate far exceeding that observed billions of years later in normal galaxies, Silk said. Star creation slowed because these powerful flows went into a state of energy conservation, she said, reducing the gas available to form stars in galaxies.

“We originally thought that galaxies formed when a giant gas cloud collapsed,” Silk explained. “The big surprise is that there was a seed in the middle of that cloud, a large black hole, and that helped rapidly convert the inner part of that cloud into stars at a much faster rate than we expected. And thus the first galaxies emerged. .they are incredibly bright.”

The team hopes that future Webb telescope observations, with more precise counts of stars and supermassive black holes in the early universe, will help confirm their calculations. Silk hopes these observations will also help scientists gather more clues about the evolution of the universe.

“The big question is: what were our beginnings? The sun is one star among 100 billion in the Milky Way, and there is also a huge black hole in the middle. What is the connection between the two?” he said. “Within a year we will have much better data and many of our questions will start to get answers.”

Authors include Colin Norman and Rosemary FG Wyse of Johns Hopkins; Mitchell C. Begelman of the University of Colorado and the National Institute of Standards and Technology; and Adi Nusser of the Israel Institute of Technology.

More information:
Joseph Silk et al, Which came first: supermassive black holes or galaxies? JWST Perspectives, The letters from the astrophysical diary (2024). DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/ad1bf0

Magazine information:
Letters from astrophysical journals

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