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  Current Research Highlight :: February 2014 all highlights

Connecting the formation of monster black holes to streaming motions in the early Universe

The origin of supermassive black holes in the centres of large galaxies is one of the most interesting unsolved problems in astrophysics. Recently, scientists at MPA investigated how the motions between ordinary matter and dark matter in the early Universe could have affected the formation of supermassive black holes alongside the first galaxies.

Fig. 1: Artist’s rendering of a quasar ingesting matter from its surroundings. Such a supermassive black hole shines very brightly and can therefore be observed at vast distances.
image credit: ESO/UKIDSS/SDSS

Fig. 2: A schematic cartoon of how the first structures form without (top) and with (bottom) streaming motions. Dark matter is represented by grey circles, while ordinary matter is represented by orange ones. If there are streaming motions (represented by arrows) between ordinary and dark matter, the clumps of ordinary matter form less quickly, resulting in a delay in the formation of the very first stars (depicted as blue symbols).

Fig. 3: The plot on the left shows the theoretical abundances of all galaxies (black lines) and only those galaxies with massive black holes (coloured histograms) when the universe was just 90 million years old. Streaming motions could help to form massive black holes much earlier than previously thought. (The different colours represent different interpretations of high-resolution simulations on how effectively the streaming motions delay star formation.)
The plot on the right is similar to the one on the left but at a later epoch. With the new scenario involving streaming motions, the prediction for the abundance of massive black holes is roughly consistent with the observed value (about 10-9 per cubic Megaparsec).

A supermassive black hole with a mass several million or even billion times the mass of the Sun lies at the centre of every massive galaxy. Observations of quasars — supermassive black holes in luminous, gas-eating states — show that they must have formed at around the same time as the first stars and galaxies, during the first few hundred million years after the Big Bang. The origin of these gravitational monsters remains one of the major unsolved problems in astrophysics (see linkPfeil.gifResearch Highlight July 2012).

The first stars and galaxies formed more than 13 billion years ago, when the mixture of primordial gas (mostly hydrogen and helium) and dark matter in the early Universe started to build up in dense pockets. There, the gas formed hydrogen molecules, and collapsed due to its own gravity to form the first stars.

Astrophysicists believe that the first super-sized black holes formed shortly afterwards, by one of two possible processes. The first possibility is that massive stars left behind black holes when they ran out of fuel. These then consumed matter from their surroundings and fused together with each other until they became supermassive. The second possibility is that extra-massive black holes formed from the direct collapse of very massive clumps of hot gas (about 8000 Kelvin, hotter than the surface of the Sun) that did not form hydrogen molecules — gas without hydrogen molecules would not have collapsed into ordinary stars, but instead much more massive objects.

As mentioned above, galaxies formed from — and consist of — a mixture of dark and ordinary matter. While ordinary matter is made of the familiar protons, electrons and neutrons, the dark matter interacts with normal, atomic matter only gravitationally. Actually, most of the mass inside a galaxy is in the form of this mysterious component. In a typical galaxy today, the union of the two types of matter — ordinary and dark — is peaceful, but this was not the case at the time when the first stars and galaxies formed.

Recent studies have shown that in the early Universe, ordinary matter and dark matter did not move in unison — much as fish do not always swim with the current of water. Because of the fact that there were relative motions between ordinary and dark matter — that they “streamed” against each other — they cannot have gravitationally collapsed in the same way. The dark matter, being more abundant, collapsed first, and gravity pulled in the ordinary matter only after the motions had slowed down. This means that because of the primordial streaming motions, the first stars and galaxies formed somewhat later than previously thought (Figure 2).

Recently, a collaboration between scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Astrophysics and the Columbia University (New York, USA) investigated the effects of these streaming motions on the formation of the first supermassive black holes.

As stated above, one of the main effects of the streaming between two kinds of matter is that stars form later than previously believed. If monster black holes are descended from these first stars, then their rise in the Universe would also be delayed. Future telescopes such as the planned James Webb Space Telescope by NASA might be able to detect black holes at these early epochs, some 400 to 500 million years after the Big Bang. Models including streaming motions would predict as much as 10 times fewer massive black holes than previously expected.

A second study found that in rare cases, primordial streaming motions could also help to make extra-large black holes directly. Such events could occur in rare places in the Universe where the streaming is especially vigorous, and also where large amounts of dark matter begin to accumulate exceptionally early. Under such conditions, large pockets of gas hotter than 8000 Kelvin can assemble before ever forming hydrogen molecules and stars, and therefore collapse into massive black holes much earlier than previously thought (Figure 3). It is uncertain how often this rare combination of conditions actually resulted in the formation of massive black holes. However, as it turns out, this mechanism could explain the abundance of the most luminous quasars observed when the Universe was 800 million to 1 billion years old — regardless of whether extreme streaming motions successfully formed massive black holes less than 1 per cent or nearly 100 per cent of the time.

These studies reveal that primordial motions between ordinary mater and dark matter influence both scenarios proposed for the formation of supermassive black holes. These new insights could give valuable clues for the interpretation of future observations of the universe at early epochs.

Takamitsu Tanaka, Miao Li and Zoltán Haiman


Takamitsu Tanaka, Miao Li & Zoltán Haiman, “The effect of baryonic streaming motions on the formation of the first supermassive black holes”, 2013, MNRAS, 435, 3559

Takamitsu Tanaka & Miao Li, "The formation of massive black holes in z~30 dark matter haloes with large baryonic streaming velocities", 2014, MNRAS, in press.

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