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Fast food reason for large black holes?

A steady diet of cold, fast food fuelled the rapid growth of early supermassive black holes soon after big bang, US astronomers say.

india Updated: Dec 13, 2011 13:36 IST

A steady diet of cold, fast food fuelled the rapid growth of early supermassive black holes soon after big bang, US astronomers say.

Computer simulations completed using supercomputers at the National Institute for Computational Sciences and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center and viewed using GigaPan Time Machine technology, showed that thin streams of cold gas flow uncontrolled into the centre of the first black holes, caused them to grow faster than anything else in the universe.

Black holeIn the early days of the universe, a mere 700 to 800 million years after the Big Bang, most things were small. The first stars and galaxies were just beginning to form and grow in isolated parts of the universe.

According to astrophysical theory, black holes found during this era also should be small in proportion with the galaxies in which they reside.

Recent observations from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) have shown that this is not the case, as enormous supermassive black holes existed as early as 700 million years after the Big Bang.

"The Sloan Digital Sky Survey found supermassive black holes at less than 1 billion years. They were the same size as today’s most massive black holes, which are 13.6 billion years old," said Tiziana Di Matteo, associate professor of physics at Carnegie Mellon.

"It was a puzzle. Why do some black holes form so early when it takes the whole age of the universe for others to reach the same mass?"

Supermassive black holes are the largest black holes, with masses billions of times larger than that of the sun.

“If you write the equations for how galaxies and black holes form, it doesn’t seem possible that these huge masses could form that early,” said Rupert Croft, an associate professor of physics at Carnegie Mellon.

“But we look to the sky and there they are.”

To find out exactly how these supermassive black holes came to be, Di Matteo, Croft and Carnegie Mellon post-doctoral researcher Nishikanta Khandai created the largest cosmological simulation to-date.

Called MassiveBlack, the simulation focused on recreating the first billion years after the Big Bang.

“This simulation is truly gigantic. It’s the largest in terms of the level of physics and the actual volume. We did that because we were interested in looking at rare things in the universe, like the first black holes. Because they are so rare, you need to search over a large volume of space,” said Di Matteo.

They began by running the simulation under conditions laid out under the standard model of cosmology – the accepted theories and laws of modern day physics governing the formation and growth of the universe.

“We didn’t put anything crazy in. There’s no magic physics, no extra stuff. It’s the same physics that forms galaxies in simulations of the later universe,” said Croft.

“But magically, these early quasars, just as had been observed, appear. We didn’t know they were going to show up. It was amazing to measure their masses and go ‘Wow! These are the exact right size and show up exactly at the right point in time. It’s a success story for the modern theory of cosmology.”

Normally, when cold gas flows toward a black hole it collides with other gas in the surrounding galaxy. This causes the cold gas to heat up and then cool back down before it enters the black hole. This process, called shock heating, would stop black holes in the early universe from growing fast enough to reach the masses we see.

Instead, Di Matteo and Croft saw in their simulation thin streams of cold dense gas flowing along the filaments that give structure to the universe and straight into the centre of the black holes at breakneck speed, making for cold, fast food for the black holes. This uncontrolled consumption caused the black holes to grow exponentially faster than the galaxies in which they reside.

And since when a galaxy forms when a black hole forms, the results could also shed light on how the first galaxies formed, giving more clues to how the universe came to be.

The study will be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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