“1st Black Holes Grew in Gigantic Starlike Cocoons” (Today’s Most Popular)

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NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, slated for launch in 2018, will help scientists to look back in time and hunt for the cocoon-like supermassive stars near the edges of the early universe, which would shine brightly in the near infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The first large black holes in the universe likely formed and grew deep inside gigantic, starlike cocoons that smothered their powerful x-ray radiation and prevented surrounding gases from being blown away.

"Big black holes formed via these supermassive stars could have had a huge impact on the evolution of the universe, including galaxy formation," according to Mitchell Begelman, a professor and the chair of University of Colorado-Boulder's astrophysical and planetary sciences.

The predecessors to black hole formation, objects called supermassive stars, probably started forming within the first few hundred million years after the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago. A supermassive star eventually would have grown to a huge size — as much as tens of millions of times the mass of our sun — and would have been short-lived, with its core collapsing in just in few million years.

Begelman calculated how supermassive stars might have formed, as well as the masses of their cores. These calculations allowed him to estimate their subsequent size and evolution, including how they ultimately left behind "seed" black holes.

The hydrogen-burning supermassive stars would had to have been stabilized by their own rotation or some other form of energy like magnetic fields or turbulence in order to facilitate the speedy growth of black holes at their centers.

"What's new here is we think we have found a new mechanism to form these giant supermassive stars, which gives us a new way of understanding how big black holes may have formed relatively fast," said Begelman.

Because of the tremendous amount of matter consumed by supermassive stars, subsequent seed black holes that formed in their centers may have started out much bigger than ordinary black holes — which are the mass of only a few Earth suns — and subsequently grew much faster.

After the seed black holes formed, the process entered its second stage, which Begelman has dubbed the "quasistar" stage. In this phase, black holes grew rapidly by swallowing matter from the bloated envelope of gas surrounding them, which eventually inflated to a size as large as Earth's solar system and cooled at the same time.

The 2011 Chandra X-Ray Space Observatory images at the top of the page and below show that massive black holes were unexpectedly common in the early Universe. The Chandra survey of 200 ancient galaxies of the early universe some 800 million years after the Big Bang showed that these young black holes grew agressively.


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