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James Webb Spots "Extremely Red" Black Hole

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has spotted a rare and "extremely red" supermassive black hole lurking in one of the most ancient corners of the universe.

Astronomers suggest the vermilion black hole was the result of an expanding universe just 700 million years following the Big Bang, as detailed in a paper published this month in the journal Nature. Its colors are likely due to a thick layer of dust blocking much of its light, they posit.

While the cosmic monster was technically first discovered last year, researchers have now found that it's far more massive than any other object of its kind in the area, making it a highly unusual find that could rewrite the way we understand how supermassive black holes grow relative to their host galaxies.

The team studied data collected by the James Webb that examined a group of distant galaxies in the central core of Pandora's Cluster, also known as Abell 2744, some 4 billion light-years from Earth.

Thanks to gravitational lensing, an effect caused by massive objects bending the surrounding spacetime, astronomers were able to get a detailed look at even more distant galaxies beyond it.

"We were very excited when JWST started sending its first data," said co-lead and Ben-Gurion University postdoctoral researcher Lukas Furtak in a statement, recalling coming across "three very compact yet red-blooming objects" that "prominently stood out and caught our eyes."

Thanks to their appearance, Furtak and his colleagues concluded the three objects — which turned out to be images of the same source — had to be a "quasar-like object." Quasars are galactic cores that emit huge amounts of electromagnetic radiation caused by a supermassive black hole in its center sucking up nearby gas and dust.

"Analysis of the object's colors indicated that it was not a typical star-forming galaxy," said program co-lead and University of Pittsburgh observational astronomer Rachel Bezanson in the statement. "Together with its compact size, it became evident this was likely a supermassive black hole, although it was still different from other quasars found at those early times."

Thanks to detailed measurements of the object's redshift, the amount the wavelength of light stretches relative to how fast a celestial object is moving compared to us, the team was also able to determine its mass.

According to those calculations, it's extremely massive, potentially packing a sizable percentage of the mass of its host galaxy into a tiny region, raising some intriguing questions as to how the growth of black holes and their host galaxies are related.

"In a way, it's the astrophysical equivalent of the chicken and egg problem," said co-lead and Ben-Gurion University professor Adi Zitrin in the statement. "We do not currently know which came first — the galaxy or black hole, how massive the first black holes were, and how they grew."

More on black holes: James Webb Finds Most Ancient Black Hole Ever Discovered