Scientists unlock the mysteries of ancient quasars and their galactic hosts

A James Webb Telescope image shows the J0148 quasar circled in red. Two insets show, on top, the central black hole, and on bottom, the stellar emission from the host galaxy. Credit: Courtesy of Minghao Yue, Anna-Christina Eilers; NASA

Astronomers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have made an exciting breakthrough by capturing the faint starlight from galaxies hosting some of the oldest quasars in the universe.

These ancient cosmic beacons are situated over 13 billion light-years away, offering us a glimpse into the universe’s formative years.

Quasars are not just any celestial bodies; they are the intensely bright centers of active galaxies, each powered by a voracious supermassive black hole.

Unlike regular black holes which occasionally pull in nearby matter, quasars continually devour vast amounts of material.

This creates a dazzling display as the material spirals inwards, making quasars some of the brightest objects known.

Usually, the brilliance of quasars overshadows the galaxies they reside in, making it hard to see anything beyond the quasar itself.

However, using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), MIT researchers have now been able to observe the dim starlight of the host galaxies of three ancient quasars for the first time.

By studying this starlight, the team could estimate the size of these galaxies and compare it to the size of their supermassive black holes.

They discovered something fascinating: the black holes in these early quasars were much larger compared to their host galaxies than those in the modern universe.

This finding suggests that the earliest black holes might have started from larger “seeds” or initial masses, and grew rapidly in size. “After the universe was born, these seed black holes rapidly pulled in surrounding material to grow quickly,” explains Minghao Yue, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT.

This rapid growth in the early universe raises intriguing questions about how these cosmic giants came to be so massive in such a short time.

The research team, including Anna-Christina Eilers, an assistant professor at MIT, and others from Japan, Switzerland, Austria, and the U.S., spent over 120 hours observing six ancient quasars. They used JWST’s advanced capabilities to separate the light from the central black holes and the surrounding starlight in the host galaxies.

The data showed that the mass ratio between the central black holes and their host galaxies was around 1:10, which is quite different from the 1:1,000 ratio seen in more recent black holes and their galaxies. This suggests that in the early universe, black holes grew faster than the galaxies themselves.

“Our findings imply that these initial black holes gained mass before their galaxies did, indicating that the seeds for these black holes were likely more massive than what we see today,” says Eilers. This early, rapid growth hints at unknown processes that allowed black holes to accumulate mass faster than their surrounding galaxies.

This pioneering study not only deepens our understanding of how supermassive black holes and galaxies evolve but also opens new paths for exploring the mysteries of our universe’s early days.

The insights gained could be crucial for understanding more about the universe’s structure and the formation of galaxies.

Source: MIT.