Rick Robinson

Oct 22nd 2021

A Supermassive Black Hole Storm May Reveal Secrets About the Early Universe


More than 13 billion years ago, a supermassive black hole produced storm winds that blew through a young galaxy at speeds of up to a million miles per hour. The galaxy, now known as HSC J124353.93+010038.5 (shortened for convenience to J1243+0100) may have a supremely colorless official name — but in the early days of the universe, it must have been a very dramatic place.

Galactic-scale storm winds have been observed before, but never in a galaxy so far away — 13.1 billion light years, to be exact. This means we’re seeing it as it was 13.1 billion years ago when the universe itself was less than a billion years old.

And finding storm winds in such a young galaxy, in the early universe, tends to confirm something that astronomers have wondered about: Galaxies and their central supermassive black holes must have developed together, each helping to shape the other.

A Matter of Balance

Galaxies and supermassive black holes are clearly related; most galaxies have this kind of black hole at their center. But determining exactly how they are related has proven tricky. As Techexplorist reports, a team of researchers recently tackled this question. On the implications for how galaxies develop, lead author of the research paper Takuma Izumi noted, “This is an important question because it is related to an important problem in astronomy: How did galaxies and supermassive black holes coevolve?”

According to Universe Today, the most widespread view has been that galactic winds arose at a later “starburst” stage of galactic development, when large numbers of bright stars would form and their combined radiation could drive a cosmic “wind” of energetic particles, similar to the solar wind but on a vastly larger scale.

But the newly discovered wind blowing through J1243+0100 suggests that a supermassive black hole can drive powerful galactic storm winds much earlier than the starburst era.

As Science Daily reports, the research team that made the discovery began by searching for very distant (and thus very early) galaxies with Japan’s Subaru Telescope, then they zeroed in on J1243+0100 with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA, in Chile.

What they found was not only a very turbulent, stormy, young galaxy — but also a striking “coincidence” that is probably no coincidence at all. The supermassive black hole at the core of J1243+0100 has about 300 million times the mass of the sun. The galactic bulge of J1243+0100 itself has a mass of some 30 billion suns, a hundred times heavier.

This is roughly the same proportion of supermassive black-hole mass to surrounding galaxy mass that is observed in our own Milky Way galaxy and other nearby galaxies. The new findings suggest that this proportional pattern is built deep into the formation process of galaxies — and operated even in the early universe. But why?

Falling In, Blowing Out

The answer may relate to the seeming paradox that supermassive black holes — notorious for having gravity so powerful that not even light can escape — are some of the brightest objects in the universe.

The reason is that as streams of falling matter plunge toward a black hole, they collide with other streams, and these collisions release enormous energy — enough to drive a blast of particles outward, even as other particles are falling inward. As the outward storm wind builds up, it can finally choke off the streams of falling matter. This in turn limits the further growth of the supermassive black hole and eventually causes the storm wind itself to die down.

Thus, the gravitational infall and storm winds’ outward blast can produce a long-term balance, leading to the observed result of a consistent mass ratio between the supermassive black hole and galactic bulge — for both mature galaxies like our Milky Way and distant young ones like J1243+0100.

One swallow does not make a summer, and observation of one remote galaxy in the dawn of the universe does not make a conclusive result. The research program is ongoing, examining dozens of other distant galaxies for telltale signs of storm winds.

But the discovery of storm winds in J1243+0100 does point toward a greater understanding of the balancing forces that have shaped the galaxies we see around us, including our own.

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