Astronomers have recently found six galaxies trapped in the web of a supermassive black hole. That’s when the Universe was less than a billion years old.

The researchers used ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) to discover six ancient galaxies trapped around a supermassive black hole. This is the first time scientists detect such a close grouping within the first billion years of the universe.

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The discovery gives a better understanding of how supermassive black holes form and grow to their enormous size so quickly. It also supports the theory that black holes can grow rapidly within large, web-like structures that contain plenty of gas to fuel them.

“This research was mainly driven by the desire to understand some of the most challenging astronomical objects—supermassive black holes in the early Universe. These are extreme systems and to date, we have had no good explanation for their existence,” said Marco Mignoli, an astronomer at the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in Bologna, Italy, and lead author of the new research published today in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

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This web of gas spans some 300 times the diameter of the Milky Way. At the center of this chaos sits a supermassive black hole some 1 billion times the mass of the Sun.

“The cosmic web filaments are like spider’s web threads,” explains Mignoli. “The galaxies stand and grow where the filaments cross, and streams of gas—available to fuel both the galaxies and the central supermassive black hole—can flow along the filaments.”

Scientists theorize that the very first black holes formed from the collapse of the first stars. They had to have grown very quickly to reach such masses within the first 1 billion years of the universe.

But astronomers have found it hard to understand how much of this “black hole fuel” could have been available to enable these objects to grow to such enormous sizes in such a short time.

The new-found structure offers a likely explanation. It seems like the “spider’s web” and the galaxies within it contain enough gas to provide the fuel that the central black hole needs to quickly become a supermassive giant.

You might ask how did such large web-like structures form in the first place? Astronomers say giant halos of mysterious dark matter are the answer. Regions of dark matter may attract huge amounts of gas in the early universe. The gas and dark matter could create the web-like structures where galaxies and black holes evolve.

The new-found galaxies are some of the faintest ever found. That means there could be many more lurking in the area.

“We believe we have just seen the tip of the iceberg, and that the few galaxies discovered so far around this supermassive black hole are only the brightest ones,” said co-author Barbara Balmaverde.

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