The super-massive mystery of super-massive black holes

Super-massive black holes can reach masses of more than 10 billion times that of our sun. But we've only just begun studying them, and astronomers still aren't sure how they formed. Now, a new study gives us one possible answer.

The mystery is that super-massive black holes couldn't have formed like normal ones. Scientists know new black holes grow at a certain rate, usually taking a million years or more to reach a substantial size.

But scientists think super-massive black holes were already around about a billion years after the Big Bang — relatively early in cosmic terms. That's not enough time to reach their enormous sizes at anything like the normal rate.

SEE MORE: What Existed Before The Big Bang?

Instead, some researchers think super-massive black holes had help and that something about the early universe gave them an advantage.

RELATED: Supermassive Black Hole Finder

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Supermassive Black Hole Finder
SPACE - UNDATED: A Computer Simulated Image released by the NASA shows the gas from a star that is ripped apart by tidal forces as it falls into a black hole in Space. Some of the gas also is being ejected at high speeds into space. Using observations from telescopes in space and on the ground, astronomers gathered the most direct evidence yet for this violent process: a supermassive black hole shredding a star that wandered too close. NASA's orbiting Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) and the Pan-STARRS1 telescope on the summit of Haleakala in Hawaii were used to help to identify the stellar remains. A flare in ultraviolet and optical light revealed gas falling into the black hole as well as helium-rich gas that was expelled from the system. When the star is torn apart, some of the material falls into the black hole, while the rest is ejected at high speeds. The flare and its properties provide a signature of this scenario and give unprecedented details about the stellar victim. To completely rule out the possibility of an active nucleus flaring up in the galaxy instead of a star being torn apart, the team used NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to study the hot gas. Chandra showed that the characteristics of the gas didn't match those from an active galactic nucleus. The galaxy where the supermassive black hole ripped apart the passing star in known as PS1-10jh and is located about 2.7 billion light years from Earth. Astronomers estimate the black hole in PS1-10jh has a mass of several million suns, which is comparable to the supermassive black hole in our own Milky Way galaxy. PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA / Barcroft Media /Barcoft Media via Getty Images
This artist's conception illustrates one of the most primitive supermassive black holes known (central black dot) at the core of a young, star-rich galaxy. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
The Herschel Space Observatory has shown that galaxies with the most powerful, active, supermassive black holes at their cores produce fewer stars than galaxies with less active black holes. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
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The new study shows how that could've worked: Normally, gas clouds collapse into stars, which collapse into black holes. But in the early universe, powerful forces, like supersonic streams of gas and dark matter, kept the clouds from collapsing. So they grew larger until their gravity finally became powerful enough to overcome those obstacles, jump-starting an enormous black hole "seed" that's bigger than any new black hole today.

To find out for sure if this is how these giants got started, we have to peer back billions of years. Some space agencies are building ground- and space-based telescopes that can detect some of the oldest light in our universe and give us a closer look at the past.

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