For years, astronomers have been searching for a “missing link” that bridges quasars—a term for incredibly bright supermassive black holes—and star-forming galaxies known as “starburst” galaxies. Such a discovery would help better our understanding of the origins of the universe and how galaxies form (and by extension, stars like the sun and planets like Earth)† While modeling and simulations suggested that these objects existed, it hadn’t actually been observed—that is, until now.
An international team of astrophysicists at the University of Copenhagen published a paper in the journal Nature on Wednesday detailing the discovery of an ancient ancestor of supermassive black holes. The object—dubbed GNz7q—was born 750 million years after the Big Bang in an epoch known as the “Cosmic Dawn.”
The team believe that GNz7q might be the missing link that helps confirm theories that supermassive black holes can emerge from star-forming galaxies. The object also gives researchers even further insight into the formation of the universe.
“The rapid formation and evolutionary mechanisms of supermassive black holes are still one of the biggest mysteries in modern astronomy,” Seiji Fujimoto, a galaxies and black hole researcher at University of Copenhagen and the lead author of the new study, told The Daily Beast in an email. He later added that the discovery of GNz7q “paves a new avenue toward understanding the rapid growth of the supermassive black holes in the early universe.”
Using images from the Hubble Space Telescope, Fujimoto and his team were able to peer into GNz7q’s host galaxy and discover a chaotically intense star factory. The galaxy is pumping out new stars 1,600 times faster than the Milky Way. Such conditions are optimal for researching the origins of quasars, making it a perfect spot to find an object like GNz7q.
“Its properties are clearly in between these very luminous quasars that others have discovered in the early universe, as well as galaxies,” Gabriel Brammer, associate professor at the University of Copenhagen and co-author of the study, told The Daily Beast. “It kind of sits halfway between the two, which is part of why we’re excited about this object. It’s a case study for how these two phenomena are connected.”
He added that he and his team believe GNz7q to be the first observed example of an “ancestor of supermassive black holes.”
Ironically, the object was discovered in an often observed and studied region of space called the Hubble GOODS North field. For years, it went undiscovered, hiding in plain sight. It wasn’t until Brammer gathered and analyzed all of the datasets from Hubble holistically that the team was able to pick out GNz7q.
“That particular object pops out as being the brightest of these very distant galaxies in that field,” Brammer explained. “At the same time it had this very unique appearance of being a very compact source. That’s the characteristic of black holes.”
Fujimoto added: “We started to think that the object could be the missing link between galaxies and the emergence of the supermassive black hole in the early universe.”
Since the North field is a relatively small area of space too, Brammer believes that objects like GNz7q could be “more common than we thought.” Luckily, now that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is up in orbit, the team now hopes that they’ll be able to utilize the powerful observatory to research GNz7q further—and potentially find other objects like it.
“JWST will have the power to decisively determine how common these rapidly growing black holes truly are,” Fujimoto explained. “So perhaps, we might soon discover the second, third, or even more number of objects similar to GNz7q in the coming years.”