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Observational signatures of massive black hole formation in the early Universe


Space telescope observations of massive black holes during their formation may be key to understanding the origin of supermassive black holes and high-redshift quasars. To create diagnostics for their detection and confirmation, we study a simulation of a nascent massive ‘direct-collapse’ black hole that induces a wave of nearby massive metal-free star formation, unique to this seeding scenario and to very high redshifts. Here we describe a series of distinct colours and emission line strengths, dependent on the relative strength of star formation and black hole accretion. We predict that the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope might be able to detect and distinguish a young galaxy that hosts a direct-collapse black hole in this configuration at redshift 15 with as little as a 20,000-second total exposure time across four filters, critical for constraining the seeding mechanisms and early growth rates of supermassive black holes. We also find that a massive seed black hole produces strong, H2-dissociating Lyman–Werner radiation.

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Fig. 1: Evolution of the halo and the radiation field.
Fig. 2: Evolution of the radiation field over time by source in the rest frame.
Fig. 3: The intrinsic and processed spectra of the DCBH and DCBH-less scenarios.
Fig. 4: J356w – J277w and J200w – J277w colour–colour plot.
Fig. 5: Exposure time needed to confirm a DCBH observation with S/N of 5.

Data availability

The radiative transfer pipeline uses the publicly available Hyperion (, Cloudy (, Yggdrasil ( and FSPS ( codes. Prior work23,30 exhaustively describes the steps required to build and integrate the pipeline. Enzo is available at (


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K.S.S.B. acknowledges support from the Southern Regional Education Board doctoral fellowship. A.A. acknowledges support from LANL LDRD Exploratory Research Grant 20170317ER. A.A. and J.H.W. acknowledge support from National Science Foundation (NSF) grant AST-1333360. J.H.W. acknowledges support from NSF grant AST-1614333, Hubble theory grants HST-AR-13895 and HST-AR-14326, and NASA grant NNX-17AG23G.

Author information




K.S.S.B. developed and implemented the radiative transfer pipeline, performed the analysis and prepared the manuscript. A.A. implemented X-ray-dominated region feedback into Enzo and performed the hydrodynamical simulation. J.H.W. conceived the collaboration and provided technical assistance to both K.S.S.B. and A.A. All authors contributed to the text of the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Kirk S. S. Barrow.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Barrow, K.S.S., Aykutalp, A. & Wise, J.H. Observational signatures of massive black hole formation in the early Universe. Nat Astron 2, 987–994 (2018).

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