NASA says it may have found evidence of the seeds of black holes, pointing to the origins of the universe itself.
New information from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) has revealed that supermassive black holes are located even in so-called dwarf galaxies. The finding is significant, because the standard belief is that black holes were formed when galaxies collided, forming larger celestial bodies.
"Our findings suggest the original seeds of supermassive black holes are quite massive themselves," said George Mason University’s Shobita Satyapal, lead author of the new study. The paper was published in the latest issue of Astrophysical Journal.
The use of infrared technology allows WISE to pick up details that other telescopes couldn’t otherwise detect through traditional visible light sources that are unable to penetrate through the thick layers of dust that occupy parts of deep space.
"Though it will take more research to confirm whether the dwarf galaxies are indeed dominated by actively feeding black holes, this is exactly what WISE was designed to do: find interesting objects that stand out from the pack," NASA astronomer Daniel Stern, who did not participate in the study, said.
Black holes remain an ongoing source of mystery and speculation in the scientific community. Most smaller galaxies observed by NASA are described as “bulgeless," meaning they do not appear to possess a cluster of stars near the galaxy's center. But the infrared data gathered by WISE indicates that there may actually be giant black holes existing at the center of these smaller galaxies.
For years, scientists have worked to confirm the existence of smaller, intermediate black holes. While those smaller black holes remain elusive, it has been assumed by some that they must have existed at some point before becoming the supermassive black holes we are more familiar with today.
But Satyapal says the WISE findings could mean that supermassive black holes have been around since the earliest days of the universe itself, approximately 15 billion years ago. As the universe itself has expanded over time, the black holes have also theoretically grown.
"We still don't know how the monstrous black holes that reside in galaxy centers formed," Satyapal said. "But finding big black holes in tiny galaxies shows us that big black holes must somehow have been created in the early universe, before galaxies collided with other galaxies."
Other scientists have theorized that exploding stars may be creating infant, intermediate black holes on a regular basis. As those newborn black holes consume gas from within their host galaxy, they would continue to grow over time. And the very existence of black holes, at least as we currently understand them, was recently brought into question by Stephen Hawking.
The WISE telescope was recently put back into service by NASA as part of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s ongoing efforts to detect near-Earth objects, that is, asteroids that potentially pose a threat to Earth.