Using a new computer simulation, researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory have helped explain the existence of puzzling supermassive black holes observed in the early universe, including the limits on how fast they can travel.

“Supermassive black holes have a speed limit that governs how fast and how large they can grow,” Joseph Smidt of the Theoretical Design Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in a statement. “The relatively recent discovery of supermassive black holes in the early development of the universe raised a fundamental question, how did they get so big so fast?”

The researchers used computer codes and created a simulation of collapsing stars, resulting in supermassive black holes forming in less time than expected, cosmologically speaking, in the first billion years of the universe.

“It turns out that while supermassive black holes have a growth speed limit, certain types of massive stars do not,” Smidt said. “We asked, what if we could find a place where stars could grow much faster, perhaps to the size of many thousands of suns; could they form supermassive black holes in less time?”

The Los Alamos computer model not only confirms the possibility of speedy supermassive black hole formation, but also fits many other phenomena of black holes that are routinely observed by astrophysicists.

The research shows that the simulated supermassive black holes are also interacting with galaxies in the same way that is observed in nature, including star formation rates, galaxy density profiles and thermal and ionization rates in gasses.

“This was largely unexpected,” Smidt said. “I thought this idea of growing a massive star in a special configuration and forming a black hole with the right kind of masses was something we could approximate but to see the black hole inducing star formation and driving the dynamics in ways that we’ve observed in nature was really icing on the cake.”

Supermassive black holes produce large quantities of hot radiation, which helps test computer codes designed to model the coupling of radiation and matter, a mission area of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The codes are used with large and small-scale experiments to assure the safety, security and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

“We’ve gotten to a point at Los Alamos with the computer codes we’re using, the physics understanding, and the supercomputing facilities, that we can do detailed calculations that replicate some of the forces driving the evolution of the Universe,” Smidt.