Black Holes Formed Before Stars

by | February 21, 2024, 12:30 PM | Galaxies & Cosmology

An illustration of a magnetic field generated by a supermassive black hole in the early universe, showing turbulent plasma outflows that help turn nearby gas clouds into stars. New findings suggest this process might be responsible for accelerated star formation in the first 50 million years of the universe. Credit: Roberto Molar Candanosa/Johns Hopkins University

One of the unexpected realities of JWST is the discovery that we have been asking entirely the wrong questions in a bunch of areas of astronomy.

For instance: we generally asked, “How did supermassive black holes and galaxies form?” with a basic assumption that these things happened in some kind of an interrelated process. We thought stellar mass black holes came from stars, and sure, we thought there might have been tiny primordial black holes that evaporated away, but that was it. Closed case. Black holes formed with all the normal structures we experience today. 

But JWST’s observations require us to find a way to accelerate the formation of structures, and one way to do that is to seed the universe with black holes. As explained by study lead Joseph Silk, “We know these monster black holes exist at the center of galaxies near our Milky Way, but the big surprise now is that they were present at the beginning of the universe as well and were almost like building blocks or seeds for early galaxies. They really boosted everything, like gigantic amplifiers of star formation, which is a whole turnaround of what we thought possible before—so much so that this could completely shake up our understanding of how galaxies form.”

This work is published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Silk goes on to say, “We’re arguing that black hole outflows crushed gas clouds, turning them into stars and greatly accelerating the rate of star formation. Otherwise, it’s very hard to understand where these bright galaxies came from because they’re typically smaller in the early universe.”

This paper puts forward a new idea that seems to work, but this is just a start. It is still hoped that in the coming years, additional observations made with JWST will provide the data needed to make sure we’re now asking the right questions.