Supermassive black holes a billion times heavier than the sun are too big to have formed conventionally. 

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Sloshing, supersonic gas may have built the baby universe’s biggest black holes

A central mystery surrounds the supermassive black holes that haunt the cores of galaxies: How did they get so big so fast? Now, a new, computer simulation–based study suggests that these giants were formed and fed by massive clouds of gas sloshing around in the aftermath of the big bang.

“This really is a new pathway,” says Volker Bromm, an astrophysicist at the University of Texas in Austin who was not part of the research team. “But it’s not … the one and only pathway.”

Astronomers know that, when the universe was just a billion years old, some supermassive black holes were already a billion times heavier than the sun. That’s much too big for them to have been built up through the slow mergers of small black holes formed in the conventional way, from collapsed stars a few dozen times the mass of the sun. Instead, the prevailing idea is that these behemoths had a head start. They could have condensed directly out of seed clouds of hydrogen gas weighing tens of thousands of solar masses, and grown from there by gravitationally swallowing up more gas. But the list of plausible ways for these “direct-collapse” scenarios to happen is short, and each option requires a perfect storm of circumstances.

For theorists tinkering with computer models, the trouble lies in getting a massive amount of gas to pile up long enough to collapse all at once, into a vortex that feeds a nascent black hole like water down a sink drain. If any parts of the gas cloud cool down or clump up early, they will fragment and coalesce into stars instead. Once formed, radiation from the stars would blow away the rest of the gas cloud.

Computer models show how supersonic streams of gas coalesce around nuggets of dark matter—forming the seed of a supermassive black hole. 

Shingo Hirano

One option, pioneered by Bromm and others, is to bathe a gas cloud in ultraviolet light, perhaps from stars in a next-door galaxy, and keep it warm enough to resist clumping. But having a galaxy close enough to provide that service would be quite the coincidence.

The new study proposes a different origin. Both the early universe and the current one are composed of familiar matter like hydrogen, plus unseen clumps of dark matter. Today, these two components move in sync. But very early on, normal matter may have sloshed back and forth at supersonic speeds across a skeleton provided by colder, more sluggish dark matter. In the study, published today in Science, simulations show that where these surges were strong, and crossed the path of heavy clumps of dark matter, the gas resisted premature collapse into stars and instead flowed into the seed of a supermassive black hole. These scenarios would be rare, but would still roughly match the number of supermassive black holes seen today, says Shingo Hirano, an astrophysicist at the University of Texas and lead author of the study.

Priya Natarajan, an astrophysicist at Yale University, says the new simulation represents important computational progress. But because it would have taken place at a very distant, early moment in the history of the universe, it will be difficult to verify. “I think the mechanism itself in detail is not going to be testable,” she says. “We will never see the gas actually sloshing and falling in.”

But Bromm is more optimistic, especially if such direct-collapse black hole seeds also formed slightly later in the history of the universe. He, Natarajan, and other astronomers have been looking for these kinds baby black holes, hoping to confirm that they do, indeed, exist and then trying to work out their origins from the downstream consequences.  

In 2016, they found several candidates, which seem to have formed through direct collapse and are now accreting matter from clouds of gas. And earlier this year, astronomers showed that the early, distant universe is missing the glow of x-ray light that would be expected from a multitude of small black holes—another sign favoring the sudden birth of big seeds that go on to be supermassive black holes. Bromm is hopeful that upcoming observations will provide more definite evidence, along with opportunities to evaluate the different origin theories. “We have these predictions, we have the signatures, and then we see what we find,” he says. “So the game is on.”