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The Early Universe Must Be Overflowing with Active Galaxies

The Early Universe Must Be Overflowing with Active Galaxies, But JWST (James Webb Space Telescope) Can't Find Them. For decades, the most distant objects we could see were quasars. We now know that they are powerful active black holes. Active galactic nuclei are so far away that they look like star-like points of light. This tells us that supermassive black holes in the early Universe may have been powerful monsters driving the evolution of their galaxies. We thought most early supermassive black holes passed through such an active phase, but a new study shows that most supermassive black holes do not.

Most galaxies contain a supermassive black hole. They contain millions or billions of solar masses. They can power enormous jets of ionized gas that travel away from a galaxy at nearly the speed of light, shatter stars to feed a galaxy with gas and dust, and even dust galaxies to reduce star formation. They can also remain silent for billions of years, hiding in the central bulge of a galaxy, such as the central black hole in the Milky Way. But the massive masses of these black holes indicate that they must have grown rapidly in their youth, indicating a period of extreme activity similar to distant quasars.

This new study examines a period in cosmic history known as cosmic noon. This is a period when the Universe is about 3-6 billion years old and star production in the Universe is at its peak. This is also the time we expect supermassive black holes to be active because their churning of gas and dust can trigger star formation. Using the James Webb Space Telescope, the team collected data from a patch of sky known as the Extended Groth Strip (ESG).

The Extended Groth Strip as seen by Hubble. Credits: NASA, ESA, and M. Davis (University of California, Berkeley)

The Early Universe Should Have Been Filled With Active Galaxies.

ESG is a small, barren region of sky between the constellations Ursa Major and Boötes. It was observed in detail by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004 and 2005 and found more than 50.000 galaxies. In 2011, the Spitzer Space Telescope observed the region at infrared wavelengths as part of the All-Wavelength Extended Groth Strip International Survey (AEGIS). Spitzer saw many active black holes glow, but not as many as expected. This wasn't terribly unexpected, as it's quite possible that Spitzer wasn't sensitive enough to spot smaller AGNs or those that were deeply shrouded in dust. This new research by JWST was expected to see more, but that was not the case. The Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science program (CEERS) has found about the same number of active black holes as before. And with the higher resolution and sensitivity of JWST, we can ignore the results. What this team discovered is that active black holes at cosmic noon are rare, meaning most galactic black holes grow at a slower rate. The team also found that smaller galaxies lack enormous amounts of dust. Most of the galaxies observed were similar to the Milky Way. Spiral galaxies with limited dust and a highly central black hole. This brings to mind the possibility that our galaxy has never had an AGN (Active Galactic Nucleus) period. It should be noted that this initial result only focused on about 400 galaxies. The team plans to complete a larger survey of 5.000 galaxies next year.

Ref:CEERS Key Paper VII: JWST/MIRI Reveals a Faint Population of Galaxies at Cosmic Noon Unseen by Spitzer

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