The Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory have been used to answer a long-standing mystery about the formation of black holes. Astronomers utilizing these powerful instruments detected gas clouds that act as seeds, and will one day form supermassive black holes.

Black holes form much faster than traditional theories suggest they might. Instead of matter slowly collecting over time, combining with mergers of smaller black holes, this new data suggests massive gas clouds may have collapsed directly into black holes, rather than forming stars first.

A team of Italian astronomers led the study, aimed at identifying the processes inherent in the formation of these supermassive objects found at the core of nearly all major galaxies.

"Our discovery, if confirmed, explains how these monster black holes were born. We found evidence that supermassive black hole seeds can form directly from the collapse of a giant gas cloud, skipping any intermediate steps," said Fabio Pacucci of Scuola Normale Superiore (SNS) in Italy, leader of the new study.

These supermassive black holes, containing millions or billions of times more mass than our own sun, may be an artifact of the earliest days of the universe. These objects began to take shape just about 1 billion years after the big bang, astronomers believe.

Combining a new method of detecting cosmic seed candidates from observatory data with advanced computer models of the bodies yielded two likely targets where supermassive black holes may be forming. Each of the objects is so far away, astronomers see them as they existed less than a billion years after the formation of the universe.

If this new study is correct, then black holes start large, and grow at a moderate rate, as opposed to starting small, followed by a more rapid growth.

Future studies will involve observations of the first black holes in the universe made with the European Extremely Large Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope, once that observatory launches into orbit.

Analysis of the new data, and what it can tell us about the formation of supermassive black holes, will be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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