James Webb Space Telescope survey reveals fewer supermassive black holes than we thought

Photo Credit: Aman Pal/Unsplash

Do you know that in space movies, black holes are always portrayed as creepy, all-consuming monsters?

Well, scientists used a really powerful telescope to look at part of the sky, and guess what? These utterly spooky black holes aren’t as common as we thought.

This is pretty big news and gives us a new perspective on our universe.

The telescope and the lady behind the lens

Allison Kirkpatrick, a teacher and researcher at the University of Kansas, led this project. She used the James Webb Space Telescope, which is something of a superhero among telescopes and much more powerful than anything before it.

They focused on a part of the sky that has been observed many times before, but never with the super vision of this new telescope.

Allison wanted to find out what was going on with galaxies like ours a really long time ago, about 7 to 10 billion years ago.

Above all, she wanted to find black holes that are in the process of sucking in a lot of matter (scientists call these “active galactic nuclei” or AGN for short).

What did you find?

Less drama in the center

The big surprise was that there were fewer of these AGN black holes than expected.

It’s like going to a party and expecting lots of loud music and dancing, only to realize it’s going to be a quiet tea party. So the universe might actually be a little quieter and more stable than we thought.

Ordinary black holes are just chilled

Every galaxy, including ours, has a black hole at its center. But most aren’t drama queens like AGN’s. They just sit there, not growing fast and not disturbing the galaxies around them.

This leaves us wondering how the black hole at the center of our own galaxy behaves. If it’s more like those “cool” black holes, then it probably never was an AGN type.

Not much dust in the wind

Another surprise concerned the dust. Well, dust in space isn’t like the dust under your bed; They are rather tiny pieces of rock and ice. In really large galaxies you find a lot of them.

Allison thought the smaller ones would have a lot of dust, too, but that wasn’t the case. This makes us reconsider how galaxies, even the size of our own Milky Way, grow and change over time.

What’s next?

Allison is already preparing for another, even larger study. About 400 galaxies were studied in the first study, and there will be about 5,000 in the next!

She will use the same super telescope and focus on the same part of the sky to dig deeper into these new questions. The study will take place in early 2024, and who knows what else it might find?

The Big Picture: Why Does It Matter?

Okay, so there are no AGN black holes coming to eat us, that’s good. But there is more. This study makes us reconsider how black holes grow and affect their galaxies.

If most black holes are of the quiet, non-dramatic kind, then they are unlikely to cause major changes in their galaxies.

It also means that we need to think differently about how our own Milky Way formed. Pretty cool right?

In short, this new way of looking at the universe is making scientists rack their brains and reevaluate some old ideas.

And that’s what science is all about: keep asking questions and let the answers surprise you.

The study was published in arXiv.

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Source: University of Kansas

Laura Coffey

Laura Coffey is a Worldtimetodays U.S. News Reporter based in Canada. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Laura Coffey joined Worldtimetodays in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing: LauraCoffey@worldtimetodays.com.

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