Oct. 1 (UPI) -- Using the Very Large Telescope, a powerful observatory in Chile, astronomers have identified six galaxies trapped in the web of a supermassive black hole when the universe was just 900 million years old.
The discovery, described Thursday in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, helps explain how supermassive black holes got so big so soon after the Big Bang.
"This research was mainly driven by the desire to understand some of the most challenging astronomical objects -- supermassive black holes in the early universe," lead study author Marco Mignoli said in a news release.
"These are extreme systems and to date we have had no good explanation for their existence," said Mignoli, an astronomer at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy.
The findings lend support to the theory that web-like structures of gas fueled the rapid growth of supermassive black holes in the early universe. When scientists measured the extent of the spider web of gas, they found it stretched to a size 300 times that of the Milky Way.
"The cosmic web filaments are like spider's web threads," said Mignoli. "The galaxies stand and grow where the filaments cross, and streams of gas -- available to fuel both the galaxies and the central supermassive black hole -- can flow along the filaments."
The light captured by Very Large Telescope was produced by galaxies located 12.8 billion light-years away, which means it has been traveling through space for 12.8 billion years -- offering astronomers a view of the universe when it was just 900 million years old, a relative infant.
Astronomers estimate the first black holes formed after the collapse of the universe's first generation of stars, not long after the Big Bang, but how these early black holes grew so big so fast has remained a mystery.
The discovery suggests the supply of gas and material trapped by web-like filaments of gas helped fuel this rapid growth. Astronomers suspect concentrations of dark matter helped organize and grow these web-like structures.
"Our finding lends support to the idea that the most distant and massive black holes form and grow within massive dark matter halos in large-scale structures, and that the absence of earlier detections of such structures was likely due to observational limitations," said study co-author Colin Norman, astronomer at Johns Hopkins University.
The galaxies imaged by VLT and its MUSE and FORS2 instruments are some of faintest objects yet to identified in the early universe.
With a handful of more powerful telescopes currently under construction, researchers said they expect to soon be able to spot even fainter galaxies, black holes and webs of gas in the distant universe.
"We believe we have just seen the tip of the iceberg, and that the few galaxies discovered so far around this supermassive black hole are only the brightest ones," said co-author Barbara Balmaverde, an astronomer at INAF