The James Webb Space Telescope spots the most-distant active supermassive black hole ever found — so far

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has detected the most distant active supermassive black hole in the universe to date.

The black hole is in a galaxy called CEERS 1019.

It’s a pretty big deal, but the US space agency says it might only hold the title for a few weeks.

Let’s unpack what this means and why it’s so special.

What is a black hole?

It’s a whole lot of matter jammed into one (relatively) small area.

“Think of a star ten times more massive than the Sun squeezed into a sphere approximately the diameter of New York City,” a NASA fact sheet explains.

“The result is a gravitational field so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape.”

                  Here’s an artist’s impression of what a supermassive black hole looks like.                          ()

“They don’t provide shortcuts between different points in space, or portals to other dimensions or universes,” NASA says.

Black holes don’t suck in other matter.

“From far enough away, their gravitational effects are just like those of other objects of the same mass.”

Most black holes are formed from the remnants of a massive star following its explosive death in what’s called a supernova.

But they can also form when stars collide.

NASA says there are “countless” black holes in the universe that are 10 to 24 times as big as the Sun.

What is a supermassive black hole?

They’re much, much heavier than your garden variety black hole.

Supermassive black holes are millions, if not billions, times as big as the Sun.

“Although the basic formation process is understood, one perennial mystery in the science of black holes is that they appear to exist on two radically different size scales,” NASA says.

Why is this black hole special?

It’s very, very old but also quite small, relatively speaking.

CEERS 1019’s black hole existed more than 570 million years after the Big Bang.

Before now, the most distant black hole was about 670 million years after the Big Bang

A graphic comparing the CEERS 1019 black hole to the much, much more recent black holes in the universe
The CEERS 1019 black hole existed about 570 million years after the Big Bang. ()

CEERS 1019’s black hole is about 9 million times the mass of the Sun. 

To put that into perspective, we know about other supermassive black holes that are about 1 billion times the mass of the Sun.

Technically, CEERS 1019’s black hole counts as “supermassive” but, in a media statement, NASA also described it as “less massive than any other yet identified in the early universe”.

“Though smaller, this black hole existed so much earlier that it is still difficult to explain how it formed so soon after the universe began,” NASA says.

“Researchers have long known that smaller black holes must have existed earlier in the universe, but it wasn’t until Webb began observing that they were able to make definitive detections.”

How do we know this?

The telescope is making a whole lot of observations all the time, so it’s up to experts to go through all that data and make sense of it all.

Take a look at this panoramic image of a portion of the universe very, very far away:

A panoramic image of countless galaxies in the universe, made up of individual images of multiple stars
There’s a lot going on in this image. ()

It’s actually made up of multiple images captured by Webb in near-infrared light.

It shows a whole bunch of galaxies, which are massive.

For example, our Solar System is in the Milky Way galaxy.

If we were to shrink our Sun to the size of a grain of sand, NASA says our Solar System would roughly fit in the palm of your hand.

On this scale, our galaxy would roughly span the continent of North America.

So, if you glance back up at that panorama with multiple galaxies, you’ll understand that there’s a lot of data to go through.

One program aiming to get through some of this data is the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science (CEERS) Survey.

It combines Webb’s highly detailed near- and mid-infrared images and data about different wavelengths of light, known as spectra.

Why didn’t we know about this until now?

Because we didn’t have a telescope powerful enough to detect them.

Before the Webb was launched in December 2021, we relied on images from probes like the Hubble Space Telescope.

And while Hubble provided us with incredible data, it was launched back in 1990.

So if you imagine a brick-like mobile phone from the 90s compared to the smartphones we have now, just consider how much more advanced the Webb is.

CEERS leader, Steven Finkelstein of the University of Texas at Austin, says the space probe has “tremendous power”.

“Until now, research about objects in the early universe was largely theoretical,” Dr Finkelstein says.

“With Webb, not only can we see black holes and galaxies at extreme distances, we can now start to accurately measure them.”

Could there be even more distant supermassive black holes?


In fact, NASA says CEERS 1019 may only hold the record for the most distant supermassive black hole for a few weeks.

“Claims about other, more distant black holes identified by Webb are currently being carefully reviewed by the astronomical community,” it says.



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