Astronomers are also facing a “chicken or the egg” problem, and this is now taking a very surprising turn

Astronomers are also facing a “chicken or the egg” problem, and this is now taking a very surprising turn

What came first? Black holes or galaxies? Scientists thought they had it figured out, but new information collected by the James Webb Space Telescope is now turning everything upside down.

The first black holes are thought to have been born only when massive stars were nearing the end of their lives. These stars must have burned up their fuel quickly, and then collapsed and turned into a black hole. With that in mind, it makes sense that black holes didn't appear on the scene until a short time later; At least after the first stars and galaxies saw the light of day.

But a new study was published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters Now things are very different, he points out. “We know that supermassive black holes lie at the heart of galaxies like our Milky Way,” researcher Joseph Silk said. “But the biggest surprise now is that they were already there at the beginning of the universe and were almost like building blocks or seeds for early galaxies.”

Bright galaxies
Silk and his colleagues came to this conclusion after using the James Webb Space Telescope to look at distant galaxies that were born shortly after the universe was created. These galaxies turn out to be much brighter than researchers expected, and are also home to a surprisingly large number of young stars and supermassive black holes. This indicates, according to the researchers, that black holes appeared earlier than thought. In fact, in conjunction with the galaxies. Therefore, it must have greatly influenced the evolution of these galaxies. Concretely, black holes gave a huge boost to star formation in those first galaxies.

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“We propose that outflow from black holes (see box, ed.) compresses clouds of gas into stars, thus enhancing the rate of star formation,” says Silk. “Otherwise it would be very difficult to understand where these bright galaxies come from.”

Black hole flow
Black holes are perhaps the most extreme phenomena in the universe. They have such intense gravity that nothing can escape their grasp, not even light. Material that enters a black hole's fist usually first collects into a rapidly rotating disk around the black hole, also called an accretion disk. When the black hole feeds on some of the material in this disk, powerful winds and plasma-filled jet streams are created that rush through the surrounding space and compress the surrounding gas clouds. When too much cosmic gas is compressed, it can eventually collapse and form a star. We regularly see in the near modern universe that streaming black holes contribute to star formation. Now researchers say this is what also happened in the early universe. “We can't see these violent winds or jet streams, but we know they must be there because we see a lot of black holes in the early universe,” Silk said. “These massive winds from black holes squeeze nearby gas clouds and turn them into stars. This explains why these first galaxies were much brighter than expected.”

To arise
Black holes, as we mentioned, can arise from the collapse of massive stars. But if the first stars, galaxies, and first black holes formed around the same time, stars couldn't have actually produced those black holes. But how did they arise? This may be due, the researchers suggest, to gas clouds collapsing and turning directly – without forming a star first – into black holes.

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“We initially thought that galaxies formed as a result of the collapse of giant gas clouds,” Silk says. “The big surprise was that there was a seed in the center of that cloud – a large black hole – and that helped turn the interior of the cloud into stars at a much faster rate than we expected. And so the first galaxies were incredibly bright.”

More research is needed to determine whether researchers are on the right track with the proposed solution to the cosmological version of the chicken-and-egg problem. The researchers expect to be able to say more about this in the near future with the help of James Webb. For example, after they were able to more accurately determine how many stars and supermassive black holes could be found in the early universe. “Ultimately, this also has implications for us and our part of the universe,” Silk says. “The big question is: What is our origin? The Sun is one of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, and there is also a massive black hole at the center of our galaxy. What is the connection between the two?” Right now, scientists can't give us an answer, but that will change very quickly, Silk predicts. “Within a year we will have much better data and many of our questions will begin to be answered.”

Did you know…
…James Webb has also encountered very young universe black holes in the past, and they are actually very heavy for their age? Read more about it here!

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