Astronomers find mega black hole 'garden' with deepest X-ray image ever taken

The Chandra X-Ray Observatory tuned its sensors to information from the early days of the universe, and found a cluster of black holes growing in spurts.

Courtesy of Chandra X-ray Observatory
This image captured by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory contains the highest concentration of black holes ever seen, equivalent to 5,000 condensed onto the surface of the moon.

A new image captured by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory has offered a rare glimpse of black holes’ growth in the first billions of years following the Big Bang.

During a study of X-ray emissions from some 2,000 galaxies located about 12-13 billion light-years from Earth, the observatory collected about eleven and a half weeks’ worth of X-ray images. It turned up a patch featuring the highest concentration of supermassive black holes ever observed, according to the observatory – equivalent to about 5,000 being stuffed into an area as big as that of the moon. And they grew not by slow accumulation, say researchers, but in bursts.

"With this one amazing picture, scientists can explore the earliest days of black holes in the Universe and see how they change over billions of years," said Pennsylvania State University astronomer Niel Brandt, who led the team that analyzed the image, in a statement. 

The work might nudge scientists closer toward understanding how supermassive black holes got so big, so fast in the early days of the universe – the images contain hints that the "seeds" of those black holes are much heavier than previously thought – and highlights the importance of X-ray imaging in efforts to understand black holes. 

"By detecting X-rays from such distant galaxies, we're learning more about the formation and evolution of stellar-mass and supermassive black holes in the early Universe," said Fabio Vito, a team member and postdoc researcher at Penn State. "We're looking back to times when black holes were in crucial phases of growth, similar to hungry infants and adolescents."

Another NASA mission slated for 2020 includes plans to launch a spacecraft equipped with X-ray detectors from the Italian Space Agency that can measure polarization levels of radiation in the extreme environments bordering black holes.

The supermassive black hole cluster wasn’t the only dramatic cosmic event collected by the Chandra Observatory and presented by the team on Wednesday. Two galaxy clusters located about 2 billion light-years from Earth, known as Abell 3411 and 3412, were also witnessed colliding into each other, producing a massive shockwave of hot gas and energetic particles. And the images captured of this event solved a longstanding mystery among astronomers.

"In the past, astronomers have detected radio emissions coming from Abell 3411 and Abell 3412 using the [Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope in India]," UniverseToday notes. "But the origins of these emissions, which reached for millions of light years, was the subject of speculation and debate. Relying on the data they obtained, the research team was able to determine that they are the result of energetic particles (produced by the clouds of hot gas colliding) being further accelerated by galactic shock waves."

Chandra and other X-ray observatories will continue investigating the mystery of black holes’ rapid growth, in parts of the universe even further from Earth, using observations from the James Webb Space Telescope.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Astronomers find mega black hole 'garden' with deepest X-ray image ever taken
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today