"Black Hole Milky Way" by Gallery of Space Time Travel / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Largest Black Holes in the Universe Formed in a Snap — Then Stopped

Jul 5, 2019

By Brandon Specktor

About 13 billion years ago, when our universe was still just a scrappy startup, the cosmos hit a creative streak and churned out supermassive black holes left, right and center.

Astronomers can still sneak a peek at these relics of the early universe when they look at quasars, incredibly large, outstandingly bright objects thought to be powered by old black holes billions of times more massive than Earth’s sun. However, the very existence of these ancient objects poses a problem. Many quasars appear to originate from the first 800 million years of the universe, long before any stars could grow big or old enough to collapse under their own mass, explode in a supernova and form a black hole.

So, where are these old holes in the fabric of space-time coming from? According to one popular theory, maybe all it takes is a whole lot of gas.

In a new study, published June 28 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, researchers ran a computer model to show that certain supermassive black holes in the very early universe could have formed by simply accumulating a gargantuan amount of gas into one gravitationally bound cloud. The researchers found that, in a few hundred million years, a sufficiently large such cloud could collapse under its own mass and create a small black hole — no supernova required.

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