Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Did Scientists Just Settle the Debate over Supermassive Black Holes?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Did Scientists Just Settle the Debate over Supermassive Black Holes?

Article excerpt

Black holes may be born even bigger than we thought.

A new analysis of telescope data by astrophysicists at a university in Pisa, Italy supports theories that the most massive black holes astronomers know of, which could be billions of times more massive than the sun, are actually born big - as a result of the collapse of a giant gas cloud, rather than a star.

"There is a lot of controversy over which path these black holes take," explained Andrea Ferrara, an astrophysicist at Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, in an announcement.

If his team's findings are right, they could help explain how supermassive black holes, the mysterious energy vortices thought to lie at the heart of most large galaxies, formed within a billion years of the birth of the universe 13.8 billion years ago.

This theory presents a contrast to widely accepted models of black holes growing over time by pulling in gas from their surroundings and by mergers of smaller "stellar-mass" black holes, which form by the collapse of massive stars.

"Our work suggests ... black holes start big and grow at the normal rate, rather than starting small and growing at a very fast rate," he said.

The authors argue that the gravitational monsters that swallow matter, gas, and even light could not have grown to their monstrous size in the short amount of time - by cosmic standards - they took to form.

Ferrara and his colleagues will report their findings in the upcoming issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

They combed data and images collected by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Spitzer Space Telescope to identify what appear to be black hole "seeds," or baby black holes. They matched the images with their own modeling that predicted the type of light massive black hole seeds should emit.

Two objects met their requirements, emitting the infrared and X- ray signals they expected to see left over in the universe as remnants of massive black hole seeds formed billions of years ago, rather than the much smaller stellar-mass black hole seeds. …

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