Artist's impression of a merger of black holes. Physicists have proposed a new model that suggests black hole growth depends on the expansion of the Universe. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

James Webb: Fewer Active Supermassive Black Holes Than Expected

Recent study by the University of Kansas using JWST suggests a calmer universe.


I have said (written) it before and I’ll say (write) it again. The more we explore the comsos the more we are surprised by it, and tools such as the James Webb Space Telescope are definitive proof of that. In a surprising revelation, a University of Kansas-led study using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has found that supermassive black holes, or active galactic nuclei (AGN), which are growing rapidly, might be less prevalent than previously thought.

Utilizing the JWST’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), researchers unearthed evidence suggesting our universe may be steadier than we once assumed. Their discoveries enhance our understanding of faint galaxies and the challenges associated with pinpointing AGN.

The recent research, awaiting peer review, can be accessed on arXiv and is slated for The Astrophysical Journal.

Zooming in on the Extended Groth Strip

Headed by Allison Kirkpatrick of KU, the study revolved around the Extended Groth Strip—a region between the Ursa Major and Boötes constellations. Earlier assessments were based on older, less advanced telescopes.


Speaking about their mission, Kirkpatrick stated, “We aimed to capture how galaxies appeared during the universe’s star-formation peak, about 7 to 10 billion years ago. Our tools enabled us to detect dust in galaxies from the distant past, which can conceal ongoing star formation and increasing supermassive black holes.”

Unearthing the Mysteries of Black Holes

The first image of the supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way - Sagittarius A*. Credit: ESA
The first image of the supermassive black hole in the center of the Milky Way – Sagittarius A*. Credit: ESA

Although every galaxy has a central supermassive black hole, AGNs stand out due to their vibrant activity. While the state-of-the-art JWST was expected to uncover more AGNs than its predecessor, the Spitzer Space Telescope, the findings were startlingly sparse.

“The scarcity of fast-growing supermassive black holes was a revelation,” Kirkpatrick shared. “These black holes appear to be growing slower than we’d estimated. This observation, juxtaposed with galaxies resembling our past Milky Way, suggests our understanding of black hole growth requires revisiting.”

A Universe Less Dusty Than Imagined

The power of JWST provided clarity on smaller galaxies too. “While we anticipated abundant dust in lower-mass galaxies, similar to their larger counterparts, the actual lack of it was a discovery in itself,” added Kirkpatrick.

This research offers fresh perspectives on the evolution of galaxies, especially our Milky Way. Kirkpatrick’s insights suggest that if many galaxies display no AGNs, our Milky Way’s black hole might never have been extremely active.


The Road Ahead for Cosmic Exploration

Determined to delve deeper, Kirkpatrick has secured more time with JWST for an expansive survey of the Extended Groth Strip. Where her current work encompassed around 400 galaxies, her impending study will scrutinize approximately 5,000 galaxies, planned for January 2024.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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