They observe the elusive starlight surrounding ancient quasars

They observe the elusive starlight surrounding ancient quasars
They observe the elusive starlight surrounding ancient quasars

Astronomers from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have managed to observe the elusive starlight surrounding some of the universe’s first quasars.

Distant signals, dating back more than 13 billion years to the universe’s infancy, are revealing clues about how the first black holes and galaxies evolved.

Quasars are the fiery centers of active galaxies, harboring an insatiable supermassive black hole at their core. Most galaxies host a central black hole that can occasionally feed on gas and stellar debris, generating a brief burst of light in the form of a bright ring as the material swirls toward the black hole.

Quasars, on the other hand, can consume enormous amounts of matter over much longer periods of time, generating an extremely bright and long-lasting ring; So bright, in fact, that quasars are among the most luminous objects in the universe.

Because they are so bright, quasars outshine the rest of the galaxy in which they reside. But the MIT team was able to observe for the first time much fainter light from stars in the host galaxies of three ancient quasars.

Based on this elusive starlight, the researchers estimated the mass of each host galaxy, compared to the mass of its central supermassive black hole. They found that in the case of these quasars, the central black holes were much more massive relative to their host galaxies, compared to their modern counterparts.

The findings, published May 6 in the Astrophysical Journal, may shed light on how the first supermassive black holes became so massive despite having a relatively short cosmic time period to grow. In particular, those early monster black holes may have sprung from more massive “seeds” than more modern black holes.

“After the universe was born, there were seeds of black holes that then consumed material and grew in a very short time,” says study author Minghao Yue, a postdoc at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, in a statement. “One of the big questions is understanding how these monstrous black holes could grow so large and so fast.”

“These black holes are billions of times more massive than the Sun, at a time when the universe is still in its infancy,” says study author Anna-Christina Eilers, an assistant professor of physics at MIT. “Our results imply that in the early universe, supermassive black holes could have gained mass before their host galaxies, and the initial seeds of black holes could have been more massive than today.”

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