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The earliest detection of a black hole is made by the James Webb Telescope

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In recent years, scientists have been able to study the universe in new ways. That's thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope and now the James Webb Space Telescope. And these things are producing some pretty big results. Researchers say they've detected the earliest black hole to date. Here's science reporter Ari Daniel.

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: Roberto Maiolino is an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge. He's been pivotal in developing the James Webb Space Telescope. Last year, he and his colleagues wanted to check out this particular galaxy called GN-z11. It was a puzzling galaxy because even though it was compact and more than 13 billion years old, it was incredibly bright.

ROBERTO MAIOLINO: It would have required a large number of stars packed in such a small volume.

DANIEL: But stars take time to form. And the universe was young then, too young to have had enough time for all those bright stars to be born. So Maiolino and his colleagues pointed the James Webb Space Telescope at GN-z11. What came streaming back, the detail of the galaxy's unique rainbow was stunning.

MAIOLINO: It was super exciting, but at the beginning, the spectrum was quite puzzling. It had a lot of unexplained features.

DANIEL: So the team collected more data. They observed a bright, ultraviolet glow and speculated it came from huge amounts of hot, bright gas swirling around and pouring into a supermassive black hole.

MAIOLINO: And so at that point, yes, the excitement had doubled and got even more interesting, of course.

DANIEL: Interesting because this wasn't just any black hole. It's about 1.6 million times the mass of our sun. And it was in place just 400 million years after the dawn of the universe.

MAIOLINO: It is essentially not possible to grow such a massive black hole so fast, so early in the universe. Essentially, there is not enough time - OK? - according to the classical theories. So one has to invoke alternative scenarios.

DANIEL: The findings are published in the journal Nature. Priyamvada Natarajan is an astrophysicist at Yale University. She wasn't involved in the study.

PRIYAMVADA NATARAJAN: These authors have made a persuasive case that there is a black hole, despite the fact that it has not been detected in the x-ray, the surefire proof that you have an actively accreting black hole.

DANIEL: Natarajan says that if more black holes like this one are revealed, this may well mark the beginning of a new era of discovery in the outermost reaches of our universe.

For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSE SONG, "SUPERMASSIVE BLACK HOLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Daniel
Ari Daniel is a reporter for NPR's Science desk where he covers global health and development.