Gavin Rowland

Update on supermassive black hole formation

30 November, 2023

With data pouring in from the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), and combining data with other telescopes, the details are growing on how the supermassive black holes of galaxies form. The JWST is spotting great numbers of supermassive black holes at high redshifts (i.e. in the early universe). This is partly because they shine brightly as they are very active, drawing in (accreting) a lot of matter. But it is also because they are relatively large compared to their host galaxies, and thus are not outshone by their surrounding stars or obscured by surrounding dust.

As you may be aware, the longstanding question has been how supermassive black holes form in the first place? Do they form by the standard method of star -> supernova -> collapse, or is there something more unusual in the early universe, where gas clouds are able to collapse directly into black holes? The evidence is now very strongly in favour of the latter method, with our best evidence currently coming from a galaxy called UHZ1, which due its distance from Earth is viewed at a time when the Universe was only 3% of its current age. The supermassive black hole at the centre of this galaxy weighs in at about 10-100 million Suns, and there is an approximately 50:50 ratio between its weight and the weight of its surrounding galaxy. This is in contrast with the supermassive black holes seen in the present (near to Earth) which are only about 0.2% of the mass of their surrounding galaxies.

Data + simulations indicate that this supermassive black hole is very unlikely to have formed through standard stellar collapse, and instead formed by the collapse of a massive gas cloud of about 10,000 solar masses. However, simulations indicate that direct collapse to a black hole should be a rare event and certainly not the norm. If the evidence continues to pile up in favour of direct-collapse black holes, gravity in the early universe is going to require additional help. Pools of contracting dark energy would be just the thing.