JWST discovers a cosmic monster 4 billion light-years from Earth

Hiding behind a veil of dust, the red black hole has a mass larger that its host galaxy.

A group of astronomers representing the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, and other academic institutions has detected an extremely red supermassive black hole in the early Universe, using images from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

The black hole's color suggests it's concealed behind a thick veil of dust that hinders much of its light emission. Surprisingly, its mass exceeds expectations, notably surpassing its host galaxy's mass, unlike what's observed in more local examples. These findings, published in the journal Nature last month, mark a significant discovery. 

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The astronomers said in a press release that they initially identified the object – which is 4 billion light-years from Earth – as a lensed, quasar-like entity from the early universe in JWST images.

Quasars are luminous active galactic nuclei, featuring supermassive black holes actively accreting material at their centers.

The images, part of the UNCOVER program, captured the field of a galaxy cluster, Abell 2744, with unprecedented depth, thanks to the cluster's gravitational lensing effect. This effect magnifies background galaxies, enabling the observation of even more distant ones.

Dr. Lukas Furtak, a leading researcher behind this study, recounts excitement upon analyzing the JWST data, where three compact yet intensely red objects stood out, resembling quasar-like entities. Further investigation, supported by a numerical lensing model, confirmed these as multiple images of the same background source, dating back to when the universe was around 700 million years old.

Prof. Rachel Bezanson, a co-lead author, notes that the object's colors and compact size aligned with a supermassive black hole hypothesis, differing from other quasars of the era. Subsequent analysis of JWST data confirmed the object as a supermassive black hole, determining its redshift, and estimating its mass from emission line widths.

According to their calculations, the black hole is extremely massive, exceeding the mass of its host galaxy, raising intriguing questions as to how the growth of black holes and their host galaxies are related.

"We do not currently know which came first — the galaxy or black hole, how massive the first black holes were, and how they grew," says a third author, Professor Adi Zitrin.

With the discovery of numerous similar objects and active galactic nuclei, astronomers hope to gain further insights into this cosmic conundrum, thanks to the capabilities of the JWST.

The JWST, launched two years earlier, has transformed our understanding of early galaxy formation, revealing more early galaxies in greater abundance and brightness than previously anticipated, along with unveiling new types of celestial objects.

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