The formation process involved two stages, said Mitchell Begelman, a professor and the chair of CU-Boulder's astrophysical and planetary sciences department. The predecessors to black hole formation, objects called supermassive stars, probably started forming within the first few hundred million years after the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago. A supermassive star eventually would have grown to a huge size -- as much as tens of millions of times the mass of our sun -- and would have been short-lived, with its core collapsing in just in few million years, he said.
The researchers calculated how supermassive stars might have formed, as well as the masses of their cores. These calculations allowed him to estimate their subsequent size and evolution, including how they ultimately left behind "seed" black holes.
They said the hydrogen-burning supermassive stars would had to have been stabilized by their own rotation or some other form of energy like magnetic fields or turbulence in order to facilitate the speedy growth of black holes at their centers. "What's new here is we think we have found a new mechanism to form these giant supermassive stars, which gives us a new way of understanding how big black holes may have formed relatively fast," said Begelman.
The main requirement for the formation of supermassive stars is the accumulation of matter at a rate of about one solar mass per year. Because of the tremendous amount of matter consumed by supermassive stars, subsequent seed black holes that formed in their centers may have started out much bigger than ordinary black holes -- which are the mass of only a few Earth suns -- and subsequently grew much faster.
After the seed black holes formed, the process entered its second stage, which the researchers have dubbed the "quasistar" stage. In this phase, black holes grew rapidly by swallowing matter from the bloated envelope of gas surrounding them, which eventually inflated to a size as large as Earth's solar system and cooled at the same time.
(Photo Credit: April Hobart, NASA, Chandra X-Ray Observatory)
"Until recently, the thinking by many has been that supermassive black holes got their start from the merging of numerous, small black holes in the universe," Begelman said. "This new model of black hole development indicates a possible alternate route to their formation."
The supermassive black holes created early in the history of the universe may have gone on to produce the phenomenon of quasars -- the very bright, energetic centers of distant galaxies that can be a trillion times brighter than our sun. There also is evidence that a supermassive black hole inhabits the center of every massive galaxy today, including our own Milky Way. "Big black holes formed via these supermassive stars could have had a huge impact on the evolution of the universe, including galaxy formation," Begelman said.
Scientists may soon be able to use NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, slated for launch in 2013, to look back in time and hunt for the cocoon-like supermassive stars near the edges of the early universe, which would shine brightly in the near infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.