Oldest black hole in the universe discovered using the James Webb Space Telescope

Oldest black hole in the universe discovered using the James Webb Space Telescope


Doyle Rice
 USA TODAY

Scientists on Wednesday announced the discovery of the oldest black hole ever seen, a 13-billion-year-old object that’s actually “eating” its host galaxy to death.

Astronomers made the discovery with the James Webb Space Telescope.

The oldest black hole is surprisingly massive – a few million times the mass of our sun. The fact that it exists so early in the universe “challenges our assumptions about how black holes form and grow,” according to a statement from the University of Cambridge in the U.K.

News of the discovery was published Wednesday in the study “A small and vigorous black hole in the early Universe” in the peer-reviewed journal Nature.

‘A buffet for black holes’

“It’s very early in the universe to see a black hole this massive, so we’ve got to consider other ways they might form,” said lead author Roberto Maiolino, from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and Kavli Institute for Cosmology. “Very early galaxies were extremely gas-rich, so they would have been like a buffet for black holes.”

Astronomers believe that the supermassive black holes found at the center of galaxies like the Milky Way grew to their current size over billions of years, according to the University of Cambridge. But the size of this newly-discovered black hole suggests that they might form in different ways: they might be ‘born big’ or they can eat matter at a rate that’s five times higher than had been thought possible.

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“This black hole is essentially eating the [equivalent of] an entire sun every five years,” Maiolino told NPR. “It’s actually much higher than we thought could be feasible for these black holes.”

James Webb Telescope represents a ‘new era’ in astronomy

Launched in 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope is the biggest and most powerful astronomical observatory ever sent into space.

In Webb’s two years, the telescope has offered stunning views of our solar system’s planets, galaxies, stars and other parts of the universe never glimpsed before.

“It’s a new era: the giant leap in sensitivity, especially in the infrared, is like upgrading from Galileo’s telescope to a modern telescope overnight,” Maiolino said. “Before Webb came online, I thought maybe the universe isn’t so interesting when you go beyond what we could see with the Hubble Space Telescope. But that hasn’t been the case at all: the universe has been quite generous in what it’s showing us, and this is just the beginning.”

Contributing: Eric Lagatta, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

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