Astronomers, using ESO’s Very Large Telescope, have found that at the universe’s infancy black holes grew big by eating gas halos.

Astronomers, using the Very Large Telescope, have discovered “gas halos” around some of the universe’s earliest galaxies. These galaxies have formed more than 12.5 billion years ago.

Those reservoirs of cool gas have provided food for the supermassive black holes located at the center of most galaxies.

“We are now able to demonstrate, for the first time, that primordial galaxies do have enough food in their environments to sustain both the growth of supermassive black holes and vigorous star formation,” Emanuele Paolo Farina, lead author of the study from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, said in a statement.

“This adds a fundamental piece to the puzzle that astronomers are building to picture how cosmic structures formed more than 12 billion years ago.” 

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Black holes consume dust and gas from surrounding galaxies in order to grow. This explains how supermassive black holes, which likely formed due to the collapse of the first stars, were able to grow so large and so quickly in the early universe.

“The presence of these early monsters, with masses several billion times the mass of our Sun, is a big mystery,” Farina added.

Up until now, astronomers had not witnessed any evidence of enough “black hole food” to support the growth.

Using ESO’s VLT, the astronomers studied 31 quasars, which appear to astronomers today as they would have been over 12.5 billion years ago when the Universe would have been around 870 million years old, an infant in astronomical terms.

Twelve of those quasars were surrounded by huge halos of cool, dense hydrogen gas extending 100,000 light-years from the central supermassive black holes. However, they remained closely bound, offering a potential food source for these supermassive black holes.

“With the current studies, we are only just beginning to investigate how the first supermassive black holes were able to develop so rapidly,” said Dr. Alyssa Drake, also from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy.

The researchers published their findings Dec. 19 in The Astrophysical Journal

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