Space & Innovation

Collapsing Cosmic Clouds Birth Black Hole Monsters

Supermassive black holes occupy all known galaxies, but astronomers have little idea how they formed. Now space telescopes have found a clue.

<p><a href="http://www.nasa.gov/">NASA</a>/CXC/Scuola Normale Superiore/F. Pacucci, et al.<span></span></p>

At the heart of most galaxies, including our own Milky Way, lies a supermassive black hole, millions of times bigger than the sun, but how these monsters got their start has been a mystery.

One idea is that the black holes began by pulling in gas from surrounding areas. Another option is that they formed as smaller black holes merged together.

NEWS: Supermassive Black Holes Could Be Everywhere

Now, observations from a trio of space telescopes suggest a third mechanism for birthing black holes - the collapse of gas clouds.

"We found evidence that supermassive black hole seeds can form directly from the collapse of a giant gas cloud, skipping any intermediate steps," astronomer Fabio Pacucci, with the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy, said in a press release.

"There is a lot of controversy over which path these black holes take," added astronomer Andrea Ferrara, also with SNS. "Our work suggests we are narrowing in on an answer, where the black holes start big and grow at the normal rate, rather than starting small and growing at a very fast rate."

ANALYSIS: Little Big Black Hole is a Supermassive Oxymoron

Using computer models and observations made by the Hubble, Chandra X-ray and Spitzer infrared space telescopes, astronomers found two strong candidates for black hole seeds, both of which matched the predicted red color, seen by Hubble and Spitzer, as well as the X-ray profile predicted from Chandra.

Distance measurements indicate they may have formed with the universe was less than 1 billion years old.

"These objects were found in the Cosmic Assembly Near-infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey and the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey-South surveys. The next steps will involve getting more data on these two intriguing objects as well as extending the analysis to other surveys to look for more direct-collapse black hole candidates," NASA said in a press release.

ANALYSIS: Supermassive Black Holes are Not Doughnuts!

The research will be published in the June 21 issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Artist illustration of a  possible seed for the formation of a supermassive black hole. The inset boxes at bottom are Chandra (left) and Hubble (right) images of one of two candidate seeds.

Artist's impression of a spinning supermassive black hole with a surrounding accretion disk and relativistic jets.

How to measure the spin of a black hole: This chart illustrates the basic model for determining the spin rates of black holes. The three artist's concepts represent the different types of spin: retrograde rotation, where the disk of matter falling onto the hole, called an accretion disk, moves in the opposite direction of the black hole; no spin; and prograde rotation, where the disk spins in the same direction as the black hole.

Two models of black hole spin: Scientists measure the spin rates of supermassive black holes by spreading the X-ray light into different colors. The light comes from accretion disks that swirl around black holes, as shown in both of the artist's concepts. They use X-ray space telescopes to study these colors, and, in particular, look for a "fingerprint" of iron -- the peak shown in both graphs, or spectra -- to see how sharp it is. Prior to observations with NASA's Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, and the European Space Agency's XMM- Newton telescope, there were two competing models to explain why this peak might not appear to be sharp. The "rotation" model shown at top held that the iron feature was being spread out by distorting effects caused by the immense gravity of the black hole. If this model were correct, then the amount of distortion seen in the iron feature should reveal the spin rate of the black hole. The alternate model held that obscuring clouds lying near the black hole were making the iron line appear artificially distorted. If this model were correct, the data could not be used to measure black hole spin.

This chart depicts the electromagnetic spectrum, highlighting the X-ray portion. NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton telescope complement each other by seeing different colors of X-ray light. XMM-Newton sees X-rays with energies between 0.1 and 10 kiloelectron volts (keV), the "red" part of the spectrum, while NuSTAR sees the highest-energy, or "bluest," X- ray light, with energies between 3 and 70 keV.

This image taken by the ultraviolet-light monitoring camera on the European Space Agency's (ESA's) XMM-Newton telescope shows the beautiful spiral arms of the galaxy NGC1365. Copious high-energy X-ray emission is emitted by the host galaxy, and by many background sources. The large regions observed by previous satellites contain so much of this background emission that the radiation from the central black hole is mixed and diluted into it. NuSTAR, NASA's newest X-ray observatory, is able to isolate the emission from the black hole, allowing a far more precise analysis of its properties.

What XMM-Newton saw: The solid lines show two theoretical models that explain the low-energy X-ray emission seen from the galaxy NGC 1365 by the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton. The red line explains the emission using a model where clouds of dust and gas partially block the X-ray light, and the green line represents a model in which the emission is reflected off the inner edge of the accretion disk, very close to the black hole. The blue circles show the measurements from XMM-Newton, which are explained equally well by both models.

Two X-ray observatories are better than one: NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, has helped to show, for the first time, that the spin rates of black holes can be measured conclusively. It did this, together with the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton, by ruling out the possibility that obscuring clouds were partially blocking X-ray right coming from black holes. The solid lines show two theoretical models that explain low-energy X-ray emission seen previously from the spiral galaxy NGC 1365 by XMM-Newton. The red line explains the emission using a model where clouds of dust and gas partially block the X-ray light, and the green line represents a model in which the emission is reflected off the inner edge of the accretion disk, very close to the black hole. The blue circles show the latest measurements from XMM-Newton, and the yellow circles show the data from NuSTAR. While both models fit the XMM-Newton data equally well, only the disk reflection model fits the NuSTAR data.