‘Supermassive’ black holes discovered

By Marlowe Hood, AFP

PARIS — An international team of astronomers have unexpectedly found hundreds of expanding “supermassive” black holes buried deep inside galaxies billions of light years from Earth.

The astounding discovery is the first direct evidence that most — perhaps all — huge galaxies in the far reaches of the universe generated cavernous black holes during their youth, when about 3.5 billion years old.

Scientists generally agree that the universe as we perceive it came into being about 14 billion years ago.

The findings more than double the total number of black holes known to exist at that distance, and suggest that there were hundreds of millions more growing in the early universe.

“We had seen the tip of the iceberg before in our search for these objects. Now, we can see the iceberg itself,” said Mark Dickinson of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Arizona.

Black holes are among the most powerful forces in the Universe. They are believed to be concentrated fields of gravity which are so powerful that nothing, not even light, can escape them.

Astronomers have long assumed that there were far more so-called “active” black holes than had been observed, but were unable to find any trace of them.

These supermassive entities are known as high-energy quasars, a form of black hole, found in a young galaxies, that is surrounded by a thick halo of gas and dust which shoot off X-rays as they are sucked into the void.

The X-rays, which can be detected as a general glow in space even when the quasars themselves cannot be seen, are what tipped off the scientists that they had stumbled across something extraordinary.

“We knew from other studies from about 30 years ago that there must be more quasars in the universe, but we didn’t know where to find them until now,” said French astrophysicist Emanuel Daddi, who led the research.