Astronomers find six galaxies lying around trapped in a web of a supermassive black hole when the Universe was less than a billion years old.
They say this is for the first time since the Big Bang they have noticed such a close grouping, the European Southern Observatory said in a media release.
The astronomers have made this important scientific discovery possible with the help of ESO’s (European Southern Observatory) Very Large Telescope (VLT), which is the world’s foremost intergovernmental ground-based astronomical observatory organization in Europe.
Marco Mignola, an astronomer of the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in Bologna, Italy, and lead author of the new research said: “This research was mainly driven by the desire to understand some of the most challenging astronomical objects – supermassive black holes in the early Universe.”
He further stated: “These are extreme systems and to date we have had no good explanation for their existence.”
With ESO’s VLT, a new study reveals that there are several galaxies surrounding a supermassive black hole, all lying in a cosmic “spider’s web” of gas extending to more than 300 times the size of the Milky Way.
According to Mr. Mignoli “the cosmic web filaments are like spider’s web threads”. He further explains that “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 study, published in the Astronomy and Astrophysics journal, reveals that the light from this large web-like structure, with its black hole of one billion solar masses, has traveled to planet Earth from a time when the universe was only 0.9 billion years old.
Referring to these supermassive black holes, co-author Robert Gilli, also an astronomer at INAF in Bologna says, “Our work has placed an important piece in the largely incomplete puzzle that is the formation and growth of such extreme, yet relatively abundant, objects so quickly after the Big Bang.”
The finding helps to give a better understanding of how the supermassive black holes, one of which exists at the center of the Milky Way, have formed and grown to such huge sizes so fast.
It supports the theory that black holes which contain plenty of gas to fuel them, can grow very quickly within large, web-like structures.
It is thought that the first black holes, must have formed from the collapse of the first stars, which have grown very fast to reach masses of a billion suns within the first 900 million years of the Universe’s life.
Astronomers have struggled to explain how sufficiently large amounts of “black hole fuel” could have been available to enable these objects to grow to such enormous sizes in such a short time.
However, the new-found structure offers a likely explanation: the web-like structure and the galaxies within it contain enough gas to provide the fuel that the central black hole needs to quickly become a supermassive giant.
But then again, how did such ‘spider’s web’ form in the first place?
Astronomers believe that giant halos of mysterious dark matter are the key. The vast regions of invisible matter are thought to have attracted huge amounts of gas in the early Universe. The gas and the invisible dark matter have formed the web-like structures where galaxies and black holes can evolve.
Colin Norman of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US, also a co-author on the study, says: “Our finding lends support to the idea that the most distant and massive black holes form and grow within massive dark matter halos in large-scale structures, and that the absence of earlier detections of such structures was likely due to observational limitations.”
Barbara Balmaverde co-author of the study, and also an astronomer at INAF in Torino, Italy said, “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”.
It is now thought that most galaxies host supermassive black holes at their centers. The results now contribute to our understanding of how supermassive black holes and large cosmic structures are formed and evolved.
In fact, 25,000 light-years away at the center of our own Milky Way Galaxy is a black hole with 4 million times the mass of our own sun.
This supermassive black hole is now the main target of investigation of BlackHoleCam and Event Horizon Telescope projects.
ESO’s Very Large Telescope is currently under construction in Chile, and using its powerful technology, will be able to expand the research by its observation on many dimmer galaxies which are around massive black holes in the early Universe.