Webb Space Telescope’s search for primordial black holes

Artist’s conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

The Webb Space Telescope Team keeps working On commissioning the scientific instruments, the last step before we start scientific operations in the summer. We recently saw the spectacular image of the black hole at the center of our galaxytaken by the Event Horizon Telescope† One of the puzzles of modern astronomy is how each great universe came to have a giant power plant black hole, and how some of these black holes are surprisingly large even in very early times of the Universe. We asked Roberto Maiolino, a member of Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrometer (NIRSpec) instrument science team, to tell us how Webb can help answer some of these questions.

“One of the most exciting areas of discovery that Webb is about to open up is the search for primordial black holes in the early Universe. These are the seeds of the much more massive black holes that astronomers have found in galactic cores. Most (probably all) ) galaxies harbor black holes at their centers, with masses ranging from millions to billions of times the mass of our sun.These supermassive black holes have grown so large, both by gobbling up matter around them and by merging smaller black holes .

“An intriguing recent finding is the discovery of hypermassive black holes, with masses of several billion solar masses, that were already present when the universe was only about 700 million years old, a small fraction of its current age of 13.8 billion years. This is a puzzling result, given that there is not enough time in such early eras to grow such hypermassive black holes, according to standard theories. Some scenarios have been proposed to solve this conundrum.

“One possibility is that due to the death of the very first generation of stars in the early Universe, black holes have accumulated material at exceptionally high speeds. Another scenario is that primordial, pristine gas clouds, not yet enriched with chemical elements heavier than helium, could collapse instantly to create a[{” attribute=””>black hole with a mass of a few hundred thousand solar masses, and subsequently accrete matter to evolve into the hyper-massive black holes observed at later epochs. Finally, dense, nuclear star clusters at the centers of baby galaxies may have produced intermediate mass black hole seeds, via stellar collisions or merging of stellar-mass black holes, and then become much more massive via accretion.

Populations of Known Black Holes in Early Universe

This illustration shows the populations of known black holes (large black dots) and the candidate black hole progenitors in the early universe (shaded regions). Credit: Roberto Maiolino, University of Cambridge

“Webb is about to open a completely new discovery space in this area. It is possible that the first black hole seeds originally formed in the ‘baby universe,’ within just a few million years after the big bang. Webb is the perfect ‘time machine’ to learn about these primeval objects. Its exceptional sensitivity makes Webb capable of detecting extremely distant galaxies, and because of the time required for the light emitted by the galaxies to travel to us, we will see them as they were in the remote past.

“Webb’s NIRSpec instrument is particularly well suited to identify primeval black hole seeds. My colleagues in the NIRSpec Instrument Science Team and I will be searching for their signatures during ‘active’ phases, when they are voraciously gobbling matter and growing rapidly. In these phases the material surrounding them becomes extremely hot and luminous and ionizes the atoms in their surroundings and in their host galaxies.

“NIRSpec will disperse the light from these systems into spectra, or ‘rainbows.’ The rainbow of active black hole seeds will be characterised by specific ‘fingerprints,’ features of highly ionized atoms. NIRSpec will also measure the velocity of the gas orbiting in the vicinity of these primeval black holes. Smaller black holes will be characterized by lower orbital velocities. Black hole seeds formed in pristine clouds will be identified by the absence of features associated with any element heavier than helium.

“I look forward to using Webb’s unprecedented capabilities to search for these black hole progenitors, with the ultimate goal of understanding their nature and origin. The early universe and the realm of black holes seeds is a completely uncharted territory that my colleagues and I are very excited to explore with Webb.”

Roberto Maiolino, professor of experimental astrophysics and director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge

Written by:

  • Jonathan Gardner, Webb deputy senior project scientist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
  • Stefanie Milam, Webb deputy project scientist for planetary science, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

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