We’re Really Confused Why Supermassive Black Holes Exist at the Dawn of the Cosmos


Supermassive black holes can be millions to billions of times the mass of our sun. To grow this big, you’d think these gravitational behemoths would need a lot of time to grow. But you’d be wrong.

When looking back into the dawn of our universe, astronomers can see these monsters pumping out huge quantities of radiation as they consume stellar material. Known as quasars, these objects are the centers of primordial galaxies with supermassive black holes at their hearts.

Now, using the twin W. M. Keck Observatory telescopes on Hawaii, researchers have found three quasars all with billion solar mass supermassive black holes in their cores. This is a puzzle; all three quasars have apparently been active for short periods and exist in an epoch when the universe was less than a billion years old.

Currently, astrophysical models of black hole accretion (basically models of how fast black holes consume matter — likes gas, dust, stars and anything else that might stray too close) woefully overestimate how long it takes for black holes to grow to supermassive proportions. What’s more, by studying the region surrounding these quasars, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Germany have found that these quasars have been active for less than 100,000 years.

To put it mildly, this makes no sense.

“We don’t understand how these young quasars could have grown the supermassive black holes that power them in such a short time,” said lead author Christina Eilers, a post-doctorate student at MPIA.

Using Keck, the team could take some surprisingly precise measurements of the quasar light, thereby revealing the conditions of the environment surrounding these bright baby galaxies.


Models predict that after forming, quasars began funneling huge quantities of matter into the central black holes. In the early universe, there was a lot of matter in these baby galaxies, so the matter was rapidly consumed. This created superheated accretion disks that throbbed with powerful radiation. The radiation blew away a comparatively empty region surrounding the quasar called a “proximity zone.” The larger the proximity zone, the longer the quasar had been active and therefore the size of this zone can be used to gauge the age (and therefore mass) of the black hole.

But the proximity zones measured around these quasars revealed activity spanning less than 100,000 years. This is a heartbeat in cosmic time and nowhere near enough time for a black hole pack on the supermassive pounds.

“No current theoretical models can explain the existence of these objects,” said Joseph Hennawi, who led the MPIA team. “The discovery of these young objects challenges the existing theories of black hole formation and will require new models to better understand how black holes and galaxies formed.”

The researchers now hope to track down more of these ancient quasars and measure their proximity zones in case these three objects are a fluke. But this latest twist in the nature of supermassive black holes has only added to the mystery of how they grow to be so big and how they relate to their host galaxies.

Supermassive black hole with torn-apart star (artist’s impress
A supermassive black hole consumes a star in this artist’s impression (ESO)

These questions will undoubtedly reach fever-pitch later this year when the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) releases the first radio images of the 4 million solar mass black hole lurking at the center of our galaxy. Although it’s a relative light-weight among supermassives, direct observations of Sagittarius A* may uncover some surprises as well as confirm astrophysical models.

But as for how supermassive black holes can possibly exist at the dawn of our universe, we’re obviously missing something — a fact that is as exciting as it is confounding.


Black Holes, Aurorae and the Event Horizon Telescope

My impression as to how a black hole 'aurora' might look like near an event horizon (Ian O'Neill/Discovery News)

Usually, aurorae happen when the solar wind blasts the Earth’s atmosphere. However, black holes may also have a shot at producing their very own northern lights. What’s more, we might even be able to observe this light display in the future.

Accretion Disks and Magnetic Fields

Simulating a rapidly spinning black hole, two researchers from Japan modeled an accretion disk spinning with it.

Inside this disk would be superheated plasma and as it rotates it might act like a dynamo, charged particles generating a magnetic field looping through the disk. But this magnetic field wont stay confined to the disk for long. Due to inertial effects, the magnetic field would be dragged into the event horizon, causing the magnetic fieldlines to ‘attach’ themselves to the black hole.

Assuming the accretion disk continues to generate a continuous magnetic field, a global black hole ‘magnetosphere’ would result.

A diagram of the black hole's magnetosphere (Takahashi and Takahashi, 2010)

A Plasma Hosepipe

As you’ve probably seen in the striking imagery coming from the high-definition movies being produced by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, magnetic fieldlines close to the solar surface can fill with solar plasma, creating bright coronal loops. This hot plasma fills the loops, feeding around the magnetic field like a hosepipe filling with water.

The same principal would apply to the black hole’s magnetosphere: the looped magnetic field feeding from the accretion disk to the event horizon filling with plasma as it is sucked out of the disk (by the black hole’s dominating gravitational field).

As you’d expect, the plasma will fall into the black hole at relativistic speeds, converted into pure energy, blasting with intense radiation. However, the Japanese researchers discovered something else that may happen just before the plasma is destroyed by the black hole: it will generate a shock.

As predicted by the model, this shock will form when the plasma exceeds the local Alfven speed. For want of a better analogy, this is like a supersonic jet creating a sonic boom. But in the plasma environment, as the plasma flow hits the shock front, it will rapidly decelerate, dumping energy before continuing to rain down on the event horizon. This energy dump will be converted into heat and radiation.

This fascinating study even goes so far as predicting the configuration of the black hole magnetosphere, indicating that the radiation generated by the shock would form two halos sitting above the north and south ‘poles’ of the black hole. From a distance, these halos would look like aurorae.

Very Large Baseline Interferometry

So there you have it. From a spinning black hole’s accretion disk to shocked plasma, a black hole can have an aurora. The black hole aurora, however, would be generated by shocked plasma, not plasma hitting atmospheric gases (as is the case on Earth).

This all sounds like a fun theoretical idea, but it may also have a practical application in the not-so-distant future.

Last year, I wrote “The Event Horizon Telescope: Are We Close to Imaging a Black Hole?” which investigated the efforts under way in the field of very large baseline interferometry (or “VLBI”) to directly observe the supermassive black hole (Sagittarius A*) living in the center of our galaxy.

In a paper written by Vincent Fish and Sheperd Doeleman at the MIT Haystack Observatory, results from a simulation of several radio telescopes as part of an international VLBI campaign were detailed. The upshot was that the more radio antennae involved in such a campaign, the better the resolution of the observations of the ‘shadow’ of the black hole’s event horizon.

If the black hole’s event horizon could be observed by a VLBI campaign, could its glowing aurorae also be spotted? Possibly.

For more, check out my Discovery News article: “Can a Black Hole Have an ‘Aurora’?” and my Astroengine.com article: “The Event Horizon Telescope: Are We Close to Imaging a Black Hole?

Unexpectedly Large Black Holes and Dark Matter

The M87 black hole blasts relativistic plumes of gas 5000 ly from the centre of the galaxy (NASA)
The M87 black hole blasts relativistic plumes of gas 5000 ly from the centre of the galaxy (NASA)

I just spent 5 minutes trying to think up a title to this post. I knew what I wanted to say, but the subject is so “out there” I’m not sure if any title would be adequate. As it turns out, the title doesn’t really matter, so I opted for something more descriptive…

So what’s this about? Astronomers think they will be able to “see” a supermassive black hole in a galaxy 55 million light years away? Surely that isn’t possible. Actually, it might be.

When Very Long Baseline Interferometry is King

Back in June, I reported that radio astronomers may be able to use a future network of radio antennae as part of a very long baseline interferometry (VLBI) campaign. With enough observatories, we may be able to resolve the event horizon of the supermassive black hole lurking at the centre of the Milky Way, some 26,000 light years away from the Solar System.

The most exciting thing is that existing sub-millimeter observations of Sgr. A* (the radio source at the centre of our galaxy where the 4 million solar mass black hole lives) suggest there is some kind of active structure surrounding the black hole’s event horizon. If this is the case, a modest 7-antennae VLBI could observe dynamic flares as matter falls into the event horizon.

It would be a phenomenal scientific achievement to see a flare-up after a star is eaten by Sgr. A*, or to see the rotation of a possibly spinning black hole event horizon.

All of this may be a possibility, and through a combination of Sgr. A*’s mass and relatively close proximity to Earth, our galaxy’s supermassive black hole is predicted to have the largest apparent event horizon in the sky.

Or does it?

M87 Might be a Long Way Away, But…

As it turns out, there could be another challenger to Sgr. A*’s “largest apparent event horizon” crown. Sitting in the centre of the active galaxy called M87, 55 million light years away (that’s over 2,000 times further away than Sgr. A*), is a black hole behemoth.

M87’s supermassive black hole consumes vast amounts of matter, spewing jets of gas 5,000 light years from the core of the giant elliptical galaxy. And until now, astronomers have underestimated the size of this monster.

Karl Gebhardt (Univ. of Texas at Austin) and Thomas Jens (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany) took another look at M87 and weighed the galaxy by sifting through observational data with a supercomputer model. This new model accounted for the theorized halo of invisible dark matter surrounding M87. This analysis yielded a shocking result; the central supermassive black hole should have a mass of 6.4 billion Suns, double the mass of previous estimates.

Therefore, the M87 black hole is around 1,600 times more massive than our galaxy’s supermassive black hole.

A Measure for Dark Matter?

Now that the M87 black hole is much bigger than previously thought, there’s the tantalizing possibility of using the proposed VLBI to image M87’s black hole as well as Sgr. A*, as they should both have comparable event horizon dimensions when viewed from Earth.

Another possibility also comes to mind. Once an international VLBI is tested and proven to be an “event horizon telescope,” if we are able to measure the size of the M87 black hole, and its mass is confirmed to be in agreement with the Gebhardt-Jens model, perhaps we’ll have one of the first indirect methods to measure the mass of dark matter surrounding a galaxy…

Oh yes, this should be good.

UPDATE! How amiss of me, I forgot to include the best black hole tune ever:

Publication: The Black Hole Mass, Stellar Mass-to-Light Ratio, and Dark Matter Halo in M87, Karl Gebhardt et al 2009 ApJ 700 1690-1701, doi: 10.1088/0004-637X/700/2/1690.
Via: New Scientist

Mystery Blob Detected 12.9 Billion Light Years Away

The Himiko object, the most massive object ever discovered in the early universe (M. Ouchi et al.)

Take a good look, this is one of the most mysterious, massive objects ever discovered in the cosmos. We don’t really know what it is, but this thing is huge, spanning 55,000 light years across (the approximate radius of our Milky Way). What makes this all the more intriguing is the fact that this object formed only 800 million years after the Big Bang and it is 10 times more massive than the next biggest object observed in the early Universe. But what is it?
Continue reading “Mystery Blob Detected 12.9 Billion Light Years Away”

Astroengine Live #4: It’s a Black Hole. A Supermassive Black Hole

Listen to Astroengine Live, today at 4pm PST (7pm EST).

It’s been a fun few days for writing, and I’ll be sharing the best bits of space news with you in today’s Astroengine Live! This week we’ll hopefully have a few more listeners coming over from Facebook (the Astroengine Live group has swelled to a membership of 60, which is very cool). There will be a whole host of subjects, including your weekly Carnival of Space update (coming at you this week from Dave Mosher at Space Disco), so make sure you listen in. There will also be a special report about the results from a recent study into the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy… so I’ll hand over to Muse for one of my all time favourite tunes: Supermassive Black Hole!

Get Involved!

Have any articles or stories you want to contribute? Have an opinion on anything in the world of space? Email me on astro@wprtradio.com and I’ll be sure to give it a mention. Eventually, I hope to have telephone call-ins, but for now, email will do.

Listen to Astroengine Live using your default streaming audio player.