(CN) – Nothing can escape the gravitational pull of a black hole, not even its breakfast.
A group of researchers say in a study published Thursday the largest observed black holes fed on the cool gas that lingered around the earliest galaxies in the universe.
This would explain what the first supermassive black holes consumed that allowed them to grow so large: Gas and dust reservoirs from over 12.5 billion years ago haloed around young galaxies and happened to be on the menu for these burgeoning black holes, according to the study published in The Astrophysics Journal.
The yawning void that is a black hole occurs when a massive star collapses at the end of its life. In its place the black hole grows as it absorbs any surrounding mass.
“The presence of these early monsters, with masses several billion times the mass of our sun, is a big mystery,” says astronomer Emanuele Paolo Farina with the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Germany.
Think of a black hole as the center of a vinyl record, with an accretion disk surrounding it and at the fringe of the record are neutral gas and dust being absorbed.
After crossing a certain point – the event horizon – that dust and gas is absorbed by the black hole, fueling its growth. At the center is a nucleus where the radiation of all that’s absorbed escapes in a bright jet of light that can be observed for millions of light-years.
This bright event is referred to as a quasar depending on where you’re standing in the universe.
Previous studies showed there was plenty of dust and gas in the early galaxies that fed rapid star formation, but those observations suggested there was little left over to feed a black hole.
The question lingered: What does a black hole eat for breakfast at the dawn of the universe?
It might sound like the setup to a punchline, but thanks to the European Southern Observatory project’s Extremely Large Telescope in the Chilean Atacama Desert the team of astronomers now know what black holes consumed at the beginning of the universe.
The study helmed by Farina researchers focused on 31 quasars that were observed as they were more than 12.5 billion years ago, when the universe was still an infant – just about 870 million years old.
Researchers were able to observe one of the largest samples of quasars from this time period. In their study, 12 quasars were surrounded by large gas reservoirs of cool, dense hydrogen gas extending 100,000 light years from the black holes. These gaseous haloes were tightly bound to the galaxies, giving them a steady source of food to help fuel the black holes growth and vigorous star formation.
The team of researchers hailed from Germany, the United States, Italy and Chile. They utilized the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on the ESO’s setup.
Future projects will delve further back to observe black holes just a few billion years after the Big Bang.