From European Southern Observatory: “ESO Observations Reveal Black Holes’ Breakfast at the Cosmic Dawn”

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From European Southern Observatory

19 December 2019
Emanuele Paolo Farina
Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics
Heidelberg and Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3000 02297
Email: emanuele.paolo.farina@gmail.com

Bárbara Ferreira
ESO Public Information Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6670
Cell: +49 151 241 664 00
Email: pio@eso.org

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“Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope [below] have observed reservoirs of cool gas around some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe. These gas halos are the perfect food for supermassive black holes at the centre of these galaxies, which are now seen as they were over 12.5 billion years ago. This food storage might explain how these cosmic monsters grew so fast during a period in the Universe’s history known as the Cosmic Dawn.”

Dark Energy Camera Enables Astronomers a Glimpse at the Cosmic Dawn. CREDIT National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

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Dark Energy Survey


Dark Energy Camera [DECam], built at FNAL


NOAO/CTIO Victor M Blanco 4m Telescope which houses the DECam at Cerro Tololo, Chile, housing DECam at an altitude of 7200 feet

Timeline of the Inflationary Universe WMAP

The Dark Energy Survey (DES) is an international, collaborative effort to map hundreds of millions of galaxies, detect thousands of supernovae, and find patterns of cosmic structure that will reveal the nature of the mysterious dark energy that is accelerating the expansion of our Universe. DES began searching the Southern skies on August 31, 2013.

According to Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, gravity should lead to a slowing of the cosmic expansion. Yet, in 1998, two teams of astronomers studying distant supernovae made the remarkable discovery that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. To explain cosmic acceleration, cosmologists are faced with two possibilities: either 70% of the universe exists in an exotic form, now called dark energy, that exhibits a gravitational force opposite to the attractive gravity of ordinary matter, or General Relativity must be replaced by a new theory of gravity on cosmic scales.

DES is designed to probe the origin of the accelerating universe and help uncover the nature of dark energy by measuring the 14-billion-year history of cosmic expansion with high precision. More than 400 scientists from over 25 institutions in the United States, Spain, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, and Australia are working on the project. The collaboration built and is using an extremely sensitive 570-Megapixel digital camera, DECam, mounted on the Blanco 4-meter telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, high in the Chilean Andes, to carry out the project.

Over six years (2013-2019), the DES collaboration used 758 nights of observation to carry out a deep, wide-area survey to record information from 300 million galaxies that are billions of light-years from Earth. The survey imaged 5000 square degrees of the southern sky in five optical filters to obtain detailed information about each galaxy. A fraction of the survey time is used to observe smaller patches of sky roughly once a week to discover and study thousands of supernovae and other astrophysical transients.
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“We are now able to demonstrate, for the first time, that primordial galaxies do have enough food in their environments to sustain both the growth of supermassive black holes and vigorous star formation,” says Emanuele Paolo Farina, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, who led the research published today in The Astrophysical Journal. “This adds a fundamental piece to the puzzle that astronomers are building to picture how cosmic structures formed more than 12 billion years ago.”

Astronomers have wondered how supermassive black holes were able to grow so large so early on in the history of the Universe.

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Supermassive black hole Messier 87 imaged by the EHT

“The presence of these early monsters, with masses several billion times the mass of our Sun, is a big mystery,” says Farina, who is also affiliated with the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching bei München. It means that the first black holes, which might have formed from the collapse of the first stars, must have grown very fast. But, until now, astronomers had not spotted ‘black hole food’ — gas and dust — in large enough quantities to explain this rapid growth.

To complicate matters further, previous observations with ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, revealed a lot of dust and gas in these early galaxies that fuelled rapid star formation.

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

These ALMA observations suggested that there could be little left over to feed a black hole.

To solve this mystery, Farina and his colleagues used the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in the Chilean Atacama Desert to study quasars — extremely bright objects powered by supermassive black holes which lie at the centre of massive galaxies.

ESO MUSE on the VLT on Yepun (UT4)

The study surveyed 31 quasars that are seen as they were more than 12.5 billion years ago, at a time when the Universe was still an infant, only about 870 million years old. This is one of the largest samples of quasars from this early on in the history of the Universe to be surveyed.

The astronomers found that 12 quasars were surrounded by enormous gas reservoirs: halos of cool, dense hydrogen gas extending 100 000 light years from the central black holes and with billions of times the mass of the Sun. The team, from Germany, the US, Italy and Chile, also found that these gas halos were tightly bound to the galaxies, providing the perfect food source to sustain both the growth of supermassive black holes and vigorous star formation.


3D view of gas halo observed by MUSE surrounding a galaxy merger seen by ALMA

The research was possible thanks to the superb sensitivity of MUSE, the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer, on ESO’s VLT, which Farina says was “a game changer” in the study of quasars. “In a matter of a few hours per target, we were able to delve into the surroundings of the most massive and voracious black holes present in the young Universe,” he adds. While quasars are bright, the gas reservoirs around them are much harder to observe. But MUSE could detect the faint glow of the hydrogen gas in the halos, allowing astronomers to finally reveal the food stashes that power supermassive black holes in the early Universe.

In the future, ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) will help scientists reveal even more details about galaxies and supermassive black holes in the first couple of billion years after the Big Bang.

ESO/E-ELT,to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. located at the summit of the mountain at an altitude of 3,060 metres (10,040 ft).

“With the power of the ELT, we will be able to delve even deeper into the early Universe to find many more such gas nebulae,” Farina concludes.

More information

This research is presented in a paper to appear in The Astrophysical Journal.

The team is composed of Emanuele Paolo Farina (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy [MPIA], Heidelberg, Germany and Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics [MPA], Garching bei München, Germany), Fabrizio Arrigoni-Battaia (MPA), Tiago Costa (MPA), Fabian Walter (MPIA), Joseph F. Hennawi (MPIA and Department of Physics, University of California, Santa Barbara, US [UCSB Physics]), Anna-Christina Eilers (MPIA), Alyssa B. Drake (MPIA), Roberto Decarli (Astrophysics and Space Science Observatory of Bologna, Italian National Institute for Astrophysics [INAF], Bologna, Italy), Thales A. Gutcke (MPA), Chiara Mazzucchelli (European Southern Observatory, Vitacura, Chile), Marcel Neeleman (MPIA), Iskren Georgiev (MPIA), Eduardo Bañados (MPIA), Frederick B. Davies (UCSB Physics), Xiaohui Fan (Steward Observatory, University of Arizona, Tucson, US [Steward]), Masafusa Onoue (MPIA), Jan-Torge Schindler (MPIA), Bram P. Venemans (MPIA), Feige Wang (UCSB Physics), Jinyi Yang (Steward), Sebastian Rabien (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching bei München, Germany), and Lorenzo Busoni (INAF-Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory, Florence, Italy).

See the full article here .


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ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre EEuropean Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

ESO La Silla HELIOS (HARPS Experiment for Light Integrated Over the Sun)

ESO/HARPS at La Silla

ESO 3.6m telescope & HARPS at Cerro LaSilla, Chile, 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres.

MPG/ESO 2.2 meter telescope at Cerro La Silla, Chile, 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres

ESO/Cerro LaSilla, 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres.

ESO VLT at Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert, •ANTU (UT1; The Sun ),
•KUEYEN (UT2; The Moon ),
•MELIPAL (UT3; The Southern Cross ), and
•YEPUN (UT4; Venus – as evening star).
elevation 2,635 m (8,645 ft) from above Credit J.L. Dauvergne & G. Hüdepohl atacama photo,

2009 ESO VLTI Interferometer image, Cerro Paranal, with an elevation of 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level, •ANTU (UT1; The Sun ),
•KUEYEN (UT2; The Moon ),
•MELIPAL (UT3; The Southern Cross ), and
•YEPUN (UT4; Venus – as evening star).

ESO VLT 4 lasers on Yepun

Glistening against the awesome backdrop of the night sky above ESO_s Paranal Observatory, four laser beams project out into the darkness from Unit Telescope 4 UT4 of the VLT.

ESO/NTT at Cerro La Silla, Chile, at an altitude of 2400 metres

ESO VLT Survey telescope

Part of ESO’s Paranal Observatory, the VISTA Telescope observes the brilliantly clear skies above the Atacama Desert of Chile. Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky, with an elevation of 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level

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

ESO/E-ELT,to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. located at the summit of the mountain at an altitude of 3,060 metres (10,040 ft).

ESO APEXESO/MPIfR APEX high on the Chajnantor plateau in Chile’s Atacama region, at an altitude of over 4,800 m (15,700 ft)at the Llano de Chajnantor Observatory in the Atacama desert.

Leiden MASCARA instrument, La Silla, located in the southern Atacama Desert 600 kilometres (370 mi) north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2,400 metres (7,900 ft)

Leiden MASCARA cabinet at ESO Cerro la Silla located in the southern Atacama Desert 600 kilometres (370 mi) north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2,400 metres (7,900 ft)

ESO Next Generation Transit Survey at Cerro Paranel, 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level

ESO Speculoos telescopes four 1m-diameter robotic telescopes at ESO Paranal Observatory 2635 metres 8645 ft above sea level

ESO TAROT telescope at Paranal, 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level

ESO ExTrA telescopes at Cerro LaSilla at an altitude of 2400 metres

A novel gamma ray telescope under construction on Mount Hopkins, Arizona. a large project known as the Cherenkov Telescope Array, composed of hundreds of similar telescopes to be situated in the Canary Islands and Chile. The telescope on Mount Hopkins will be fitted with a prototype high-speed camera, assembled at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and capable of taking pictures at a billion frames per second. Credit: Vladimir Vassiliev