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Giant black holes a window into origins of earliest galaxies

Scientists have found evidence of supermassive black holes at the core of the earliest galaxies, a discovery that could shape theories about galaxy formation.

On Wednesday, NASA announced they found evidence of supermassive black holes at the core of the earliest galaxies - evidence that could help explain galaxy formation. This photo provided by NASA in 2009 was made by the Spitzer Space Telescope of galaxy NGC-1097. The "eye" at the center of the galaxy is actually a monstrous black hole like those announced today. The ring of light around the center is a ring of stars.

NASA/AP/File

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Astronomers have discerned evidence for supermassive black holes at the hearts of some of the earliest galaxies detected to date – budding when the universe was between 700 million and 950 million years old.

The detection, announced Wednesday and appearing in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, already is hinting at answers to longstanding riddles surrounding the origin of supermassive black holes, which lurk in the cores of all galaxies.

The observations also are helping to tease out the role these black holes in galactic centers might have played in lighting up the universe following an early period known as the "dark ages."

The results mark "the first time we've caught black holes in the act of vigorously growing in the early universe," along with their host galaxies, says Mitchell Begelman, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

For theorists interested in black holes and their role in the evolution of galaxies, the detection represents a watershed.

The ability to spot galactic black holes within the first billion years of the universe's existence "isn't a baby step forward," says Priya Natarajan, a Yale University cosmologist and member of the team reporting the results. It presages "a really large leap in our understanding" of how the first supermassive black holes formed.

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