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The formation and growth of supermassive black holes

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Quasars are the most luminous objects in the universe powered by accretion onto supermassive black holes (SMBHs). They can be observed at the earliest cosmic epochs, providing unique insights into the early phases of black hole, structure, and galaxy formation. Observations of these quasars demonstrate that they host SMBHs at their center, already less than ~1 Gyr after the Big Bang. It has been argued that in order to grow these SMBHs in such short amounts of cosmic time, they need to accrete matter over timescales comparable to the age of the universe, and thus the lifetime of quasars - the integrated time that galaxies shine as active quasars - is expected to be of order ~10^9 yr at a redshift of z~6, even if they accrete continuously at the theoretical maximum limit. 

I will present a new method to obtain constraints on the lifetime of high-redshift quasars, based on measurements of the sizes of ionized regions around quasars, known as proximity zones. The sizes of these proximity zones are sensitive to the lifetime of the quasars, because the intergalactic gas has a finite response time to the quasars’ radiation. Applying this method to quasar spectra at z>6, we discover an unexpected population of very young quasars, indicating lifetimes of only ~10,000 years, several orders of magnitude shorter than expected. I will discuss the consequences of such short lifetimes on the quasars' ionizing power, their black hole mass accretion rates, and highlight tensions with current theoretical models for black hole formation. Furthermore, I will present several modifications to the current SMBH formation paradigm that might explain our findings and show how we aim to disentangle the various scenarios by means of future observations with the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, in order to shed new light onto the formation and growth of the first SMBHs in the universe.