From Ethan Siegel: “‘Direct Collapse’ Black Holes May Explain Our Universe’s Mysterious Quasars”

From Ethan Siegel
Dec 26, 2017

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The most distant X-ray jet in the Universe, from quasar GB 1428, is approximately the same distance and age, as viewed from Earth, as quasar S5 0014+81; both are over 12 billion light years away. X-ray: NASA/CXC/NRC/C.Cheung et al; Optical: NASA/STScI; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA

NASA/Chandra Telescope


NASA/ESA Hubble Telescope


NRAO/Karl V Jansky VLA, on the Plains of San Agustin fifty miles west of Socorro, NM, USA, at an elevation of 6970 ft (2124 m)

There’s a big problem when we look at the brightest, most energetic objects we can see in the early stages of the Universe. Shortly after the first stars and galaxies form, we find the first quasars: extremely luminous sources of radiation that span the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio up through the X-ray. Only a supermassive black hole could possibly serve as the engine for one of these cosmic behemoths, and the study of active objects like quasars, blazars, and AGNs all support this idea. But there’s a problem: it may not be possible to make a black hole so large, so quickly, to explain these young quasars that we see. Unless, that is, there’s a new way to make black holes beyond what we previously thought. This year, we found the first evidence for a direct collapse black hole, and it may lead to the solution we’ve sought for so long.

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While distant host galaxies for quasars and active galactic nuclei can often be imaged in visible/infrared light, the jets themselves and the surrounding emission is best viewed in both the X-ray and the radio, as illustrated here for the galaxy Hercules A. It takes a black hole to power an engine such as this. NASA, ESA, S. Baum and C. O’Dea (RIT), R. Perley and W. Cotton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).

Generically known as ‘active galaxies,’ almost all galaxies posses supermassive black holes at their center, but only a few emit the intense radiation associated with quasars or AGNs. The leading idea is that supermassive black holes will feed on matter, accelerating and heating it, which causes it to ionize and give off light. Based on the light we observe, we can successfully infer the mass of the central black hole, which often reaches billions of times the mass of our Sun. Even for the earliest quasars, such as J1342+0928, we can get up to a mass of 800 million solar masses just 690 million years after the Big Bang: when the Universe was just 5% of its current age.

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This artist’s concept shows the most distant supermassive black hole ever discovered. It is part of a quasar from just 690 million years after the Big Bang. Robin Dienel/Carnegie Institution for Science.

If you try to build a black hole in the conventional way, by having massive stars go supernova, form small black holes, and have them merge together, you run into problems. Star formation is a violent process, as when nuclear fusion ignites, the intense radiation burns off the remaining gas that would otherwise go into forming progressively more and more massive stars. From nearby star-forming regions to the most distant ones we’ve ever observed, this same process seems to be in place, preventing stars (and, hence, black holes) beyond a certain mass from ever forming.

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An artist’s conception of what the Universe might look like as it forms stars for the first time. While stars might reach many hundreds or even a thousand solar masses, it’s very difficult to see how you could get a black hole of the mass the earliest quasars are known to possess. NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC).

We have a standard scenario that’s very powerful and compelling: of supernova explosions, gravitational interactions, and then growth by mergers and accretion. But the early quasars we see are too massive too quickly to be explained by this. Our other known pathway to create black holes, from merging neutron stars, provides no further help. Instead, a third scenario of direct collapse may be responsible. This idea has been helped along by three pieces of evidence in the past year:

1.The discovery of ultra-young quasars like J1342+0928, in possession of black holes many hundred of millions of solar masses.
2.Theoretical advances that show how, if the direct collapse scenario is true, we could form early “seed” black holes a thousand times as massive as the ones formed by supernova.
3.And the discovery of the first stars that become black holes via direct collapse, validating the process.

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In addition to formation by supernovae and neutron star mergers, it should be possible for black holes to form via direct collapse. Simulations such as the one shown here demonstrate that, under the right condition, seed black holes of 100,000 to 1,000,000 solar masses could form in the very early stages of the Universe. Aaron Smith/TACC/UT-Austin.

Normally, it’s the hottest, youngest, most massive, and newest stars in the Universe that will lead to a black hole. There are plenty of galaxies like this in the early stages of the Universe, but there are also plenty of proto-galaxies that are all gas, dust, and dark matter, with no stars in them yet. Out in the great cosmic abyss, we’ve even found an example of a pair of galaxies just like this: where one has furiously formed stars and the other one may not have formed any yet. The ultra-distant galaxy, known as CR7, has a massive population of young stars, and a nearby patch of light-emitting gas that may not have yet formed a single star in it.

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Illustration of the distant galaxy CR7, which last year was discovered to house a pristine population of stars formed from the material direct from the Big Bang. One of these galaxies definitely houses stars; the other may not have formed any yet. M. Kornmesser / ESO.

In a theoretical study published in March [Nature Astronomy] of this year, a fascinating mechanism for producing direct collapse black holes from a mechanism like this was introduced. A young, luminous galaxy could irradiate a nearby partner, which prevents the gas within it from fragmenting to form tiny clumps. Normally, it’s the tiny clumps that collapse into individual stars, but if you fail to form those clumps, you instead can just get a monolithic collapse of a huge amount of gas into a single bound structure. Gravitation then does its thing, and your net result could be a black hole over 100,000 times as massive as our Sun, perhaps even all the way up to 1,000,000 solar masses.

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Distant, massive quasars show ultramassive black holes in their cores. It’s very difficult to form them without a large seed, but a direct collapse black hole could solve that puzzle quite elegantly. J. Wise/Georgia Institute of Technology and J. Regan/Dublin City University.

There are many theoretical mechanisms that turn out to be intriguing, however, that aren’t borne out when it comes to real, physical environments. Is direct collapse possible? We can now definitively answer that question with a “yes,” as the first star that was massive enough to go supernova was seen to simply wink out of existence. No fireworks; no explosion; no increase in luminosity. Just a star that was there one moment, and replaces with a black hole the next. As spotted before-and-after with Hubble, there is no doubt that the direct collapse of matter to a black hole occurs in our Universe.

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The visible/near-IR photos from Hubble show a massive star, about 25 times the mass of the Sun, that has winked out of existence, with no supernova or other explanation. Direct collapse is the only reasonable candidate explanation. NASA/ESA/C. Kochanek (OSU).

Put all three of these pieces of information together, and you arrive at the following picture for how these supermassive black holes form so early.

A region of space collapses to form stars, while a nearby region of space has also undergone gravitational collapse but hasn’t formed stars yet.
The region with stars emits an intense amount of radiation, where the photon pressure keeps the gas in the other cloud from fragmenting into potential stars.
The cloud itself continues to collapse, doing so in a monolithic fashion. It expels energy (radiation) as it does so, but without any stars inside.
When a critical threshold is crossed, that huge amount of mass, perhaps hundreds of thousands or even millions of times the mass of our Sun, directly collapses to form a black hole.
From this massive, early seed, it’s easy to get supermassive black holes simply by the physics of gravitation, merger, accretion, and time.

It might not only be possible, but with the new array of radio telescopes coming online, as well as the James Webb Space Telescope, we may be able to witness the process in action.

ESO/NRAO/NAOJ ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres

SKA Square Kilometer Array


SKA/ASKAP radio telescope at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) in Mid West region of Western Australia


SKA Murchison Widefield Array, Boolardy station in outback Western Australia, at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO)

The galaxy CR7 is likely one example of many similar objects likely to be out there. As Volker Bromm, the theorist behind the direct collapse mechanism first said [RAS], a nearby, luminous galaxy could cause a nearby cloud of gas to directly collapse. All you need to do is begin with a

“primordial cloud of hydrogen and helium, suffused in a sea of ultraviolet radiation. You crunch this cloud in the gravitational field of a dark-matter halo. Normally, the cloud would be able to cool, and fragment to form stars. However, the ultraviolet photons keep the gas hot, thus suppressing any star formation. These are the desired, near-miraculous conditions: collapse without fragmentation! As the gas gets more and more compact, eventually you have the conditions for a massive black hole.”

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The directly collapsing star we observed exhibited a brief brightening before having its luminosity drop to zero, an example of a failed supernova. For a large cloud of gas, the luminous emission of light is expected, but no stars are necessary to form a black hole this way.
NASA/ESA/P. Jeffries (STScI)

With a little luck, by time 2020 rolls around, this is one longstanding mystery that might finally be solved.

See the full article here .

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“Starts With A Bang! is a blog/video blog about cosmology, physics, astronomy, and anything else I find interesting enough to write about. I am a firm believer that the highest good in life is learning, and the greatest evil is willful ignorance. The goal of everything on this site is to help inform you about our world, how we came to be here, and to understand how it all works. As I write these pages for you, I hope to not only explain to you what we know, think, and believe, but how we know it, and why we draw the conclusions we do. It is my hope that you find this interesting, informative, and accessible,” says Ethan