The universe is not a random assortment of galaxies; rather, they gather in clusters and form interconnected filamentary structures with vast voids in between. These filamentary structures, known as the “cosmic web,” have become more defined over time as gravity pulls matter together.
A recent discovery made by astronomers using the James Webb Space Telescope unveiled a thread-like arrangement of 10 galaxies that existed a mere 830 million years after the Big Bang. This structure spans an impressive length of 3 million light-years and is anchored by a luminous quasar—a galaxy housing a supermassive black hole at its core. The scientific team believes that this filament will eventually develop into a massive cluster of galaxies similar to the well-known Coma Cluster in our nearby universe.
Xiaohui Fan from the University of Arizona expressed surprise at the elongated and thin nature of this filament, stating, “I expected to find something, but I didn’t expect such a long, distinctly thin structure.” Feige Wang, the principal investigator of this project from the same university, added that this is one of the earliest filamentary structures associated with a distant quasar ever discovered.
This remarkable finding stems from the ASPIRE project (A SPectroscopic survey of biased halos In the Reionization Era), which focuses on studying the cosmic environments of the earliest black holes. The program’s objective is to observe 25 quasars that existed within the first billion years after the Big Bang—an era referred to as the Epoch of Reionization.
Joseph Hennawi from the University of California, Santa Barbara, a member of the research team, explained the significance of this project by stating, “The last two decades of cosmology research have provided us with a solid understanding of how the cosmic web forms and evolves. ASPIRE aims to unravel how the emergence of the earliest massive black holes fits into our current narrative of cosmic structure formation.”
As part of the study, the researchers also investigated eight quasars in the early universe. They successfully determined that the central black holes in these quasars, which existed less than a billion years after the Big Bang, have masses ranging from 600 million to 2 billion times that of our sun. This finding has sparked further inquiry into understanding how these black holes could have grown to such enormous sizes in such a relatively short period.
Feige Wang provided insight into the requirements for the formation of these supermassive black holes, stating, “To form these supermassive black holes in such a short time, two criteria must be satisfied. First, you need to start growing from a massive ‘seed’ black hole. Second, even if this seed starts with a mass equivalent to a thousand Suns, it still needs to accrete a million times more matter at the maximum possible rate for its entire lifetime.”
Jinyi Yang, leading the study of black holes with the ASPIRE project at the University of Arizona, emphasized the significance of these observations by stating, “These unprecedented observations are providing important clues about how black holes are assembled. We have learned that these black holes are situated in massive young galaxies that provide the reservoir of fuel for their growth.”
The James Webb Space Telescope has also yielded valuable evidence regarding how early supermassive black holes potentially influence star formation in their galaxies. As supermassive black holes accrete matter, they generate powerful outflows of material. These outflows, known as winds, can extend well beyond the black hole itself, spanning a galactic scale, and significantly impact star formation.
Jinyi Yang further explained, “Strong winds from black holes can suppress the formation of stars in the host galaxy. Such winds have been observed in the nearby universe but have never been directly observed in the Epoch of Reionization. The scale of the wind is related to the structure of the quasar. In the Webb observations, we are seeing that such winds existed in the early universe.”
These remarkable findings were published in two papers in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on June 29, providing valuable insights into the early universe and the role of supermassive black holes in galactic evolution.