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The mechanisms, constraints, and observable signatures of direct collapse as an agent of

supermassive black hole formation in the early universe

Abstract
The direct collapse of baryonic gas halos is proposed as a viable mechanism for the formation
of supermassive black hole seeds in the early universe. Recent simulations and analyses suggest
that direct collapse is viable under sufficient Lyman-Werner flux in metal-free halos, or via
ample shock heating in cold accretion flows. Research indicates soft x-rays can inhibit direct
collapse, and that the process is not viable at redshifts less than 13. Despite this, the number
density of direct collapse black holes is expected to be sufficient for observation, with radiative
data detectable by astronomical surveys in the near-future.

Keywords: gas halos, fragmentation, black hole seeds, hydrogen suppression, atomic cooling,
high redshift

Introduction
The existence of supermassive black holes (SMBHs), black holes with masses on the order of
104 to 106 solar masses, is strongly supported by recent astronomical observations, with recent
research focussing on characterising the mass, dynamics, and evolution of SMBH systems
(Gültekin et al. 2012). Prior to the growth of these systems by consumption of matter, known
as accretion, a relatively small black hole – a ‘seed’ – must be formed by the collapse of a large
amount of matter, such as a late-stage star or dust cloud (Kegeles 1978). However, recent
observations have found evidence of SMBHs at high redshifts – where high redshift indicates
radiation from a younger epoch of the universe – such as that observed by Mortlock et al.
(2011) at a redshift of 7.085. Hence, it is evident that SMBH formation must have been able to
occur within the first ~1 Gyr of the big bang, prompting the question of the mechanism behind
such a rapid formation.

As stellar collapse or gas-cloud collapse do not occur sufficiently rapidly to permit the
existence of SMBHs of such a large mass so early in the universe, alternative formation models
must be investigated. A favourable formation process is the direct collapse model, which can
rapidly create a black hole of sufficient mass to act as a seed for these SMBHs. This review
seeks to assess current research into the direct collapse process – firstly, the mechanisms that

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underpin the process will be discussed, followed by the constraints of the process, and finally
the predicted number density and observational signatures of direct collapse black holes.

Mechanisms of direct collapse black hole formation


The direct collapse model posits that a large amount of baryonic mass can collapse to a black
hole under the requisite conditions, bypassing the usual formation mechanism of stellar
collapse to produce a black hole of 104-106 solar masses (Choi and Shlosman 2013). For a
SMBH to form via direct collapse, the fragmentation of the mass must be inhibited and the
accretion of the mass onto the central body must be efficient and prompt – a promising
candidate for such a collapse is massive baryonic halos of 107–108 solar masses, irradiated by
Lyman-Werner (LW) radiation (Latif et al. 2013). The presence of LW radiation flux prevents
the formation of molecular hydrogen, which, due to its lower transition energies, would allow
radiative cooling to much lower temperatures than atomic hydrogen (Regan et al. 2014). The
absence of H2 permits an approximately isothermal collapse process, which, by the simulations
of Omukai et al. (2005), would prevent the fragmentation of the collapsing cloud and allow
direct collapse to a SMBH seed rather than star formation.

Despite the existence of background LW radiation, even the lowest estimates of the required
flux are significantly above this background level (Djikstra et al. 2014) - indicating that a local
source of LW flux is required, likely in the form of a proximal star-forming galaxy. However,
the presence of a nearby bright star-forming galaxy may result in the photoevaporation of the
halo, in which the gas is ionised and dispersed, preventing direct collapse - an alternative
process, proposed in the work of Visbal et al (2014), requires two atomically-cooling halos in
very close proximity. The larger of these synchronised halos evolves into a star-forming
galaxy, producing sufficient LW flux to suppress H2 formation in the second halo – allowing
for isothermal collapse in the irradiated halo. This mechanism, however, requires that the two
halos be atomically-cooling, with a low H2 abundance. Recent simulations suggest that a
velocity offset between baryonic and dark matter is able to suppress H2 formation in order to
allow both halos to atomically cool (Schauer et al. 2017), permitting the synchronised halo
model without an initial external source of LW flux.

Without a proximal source of LW flux, H2 formation must be suppressed by other methods if


a direct collapse black hole is to form. Several alternate methods of suppression have been
proposed, including the shock heating of cold accretion flows in the cores of the first galaxies

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(Inayoshi and Omukai 2012). As these cold, dense flows reach the core and collide with one
another, they produce a relatively hot and dense gas which then cools by atomic Lyman-α
emission until reaching ~8000K. If the atomic density at this point is greater than 104 cm-3, the
simulations of Inayoshi and Omukai (2012) predict significant collisional disassociation of H2
molecules, which permit atomic cooling and an isothermal collapse process without significant
fragmentation. This mechanism absolves itself of the large LW flux requirement of proximal-
galaxy models (Djikstra et al. 2014), and the associated constraints on this provision, which
are to be discussed in the following section.

Constraints on direct collapse black hole formation


While direct collapse is a viable method for the prompt formation of supermassive black hole
seeds, it is subject to several constraints and restrictions which can disrupt the collapse process.
One such constraint is the required absence of metal pollution in the collapsing gas halo – with
pollution possible to arise from supernova winds of the neighbouring star-forming galaxies
which irradiate the halo (Johnson et al. 2013). A metal mass fraction, or metallicity, of 10-4 or
higher results in rapid cooling of the gas halo, as well as the formation of gravitationally bound
clumps – both of these significantly reduce the inflow rate of mass onto the central body (Latif
et al. 2016).

As previously stated, direct collapse requires the suppression of H2 formation to prevent


cooling of the gas halo and subsequent fragmentation. While a large LW flux is sufficient to
prevent H2 formation during initial formation, work by Aykutalp et al. (2014) suggests that
once the seed black hole has formed, the x-ray irradiation of the gas by the seed increases free
electron abundance and subsequently induces the presence of H2. The appearance of cold,
dense H2 induces star formation within ~0.5 Myr – preventing a high rate of accretion onto this
young black hole. Similar inhibition by x-rays is proposed to occur as the result of radiation
from the star-forming galaxy which may produce the requisite LW flux (Inayoshi and Tanaka
2015). The irradiation of the gas cloud by soft x-rays of the appropriate intensity for a proximal
star-forming galaxy is determined by simulation to increase the required LW flux by a factor
of at least 3-10 (Inayoshi and Tanaka 2015), reducing the number of viable direct collapse
formation sites by up to three orders of magnitude.

In addition to the above constraints, there also exists a restriction on the epoch in which direct
collapse black hole formation was viable – limited primarily by negative feedback systems

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(Yue et al. 2014). The work by Yue et al. suggests that the probability of direct collapse black
hole formation is not constant in time, and that seed formation would be exceedingly rare in
later epochs. A simple mode of probability decay is the process of cosmic expansion, which
would reduce the likelihood of a metal-free gas halo existing in a LW flux strong enough to
suppress H2 formation, or for two pristine halos to come into close contact as suggested in the
model of Visbal et al (2014). The second mechanism, which brings a rapid rise and sudden halt
to the era of direct collapse, is the feedback contributions of previous black hole formation.
After the formation of the first direct collapse black holes, the large LW flux they produce
permits further direct collapse scenarios, leading to an era of rapid direct collapse black hole
growth at redshifts of ~20. However, the photoevaporation of halo gas by ionising radiation
from these black holes quickly disperses the remaining viable metal-free gas halos at a redshift
of 13, making later direct collapse scenarios unviable - this may provide an indication as to
why direct collapse black holes are not observed at smaller redshifts.

The number density and signatures of direct collapse black holes


In order to provide experimental validation to the direct collapse model of black hole
formation, it must make direct predictions of observable phenomena – that is, there must be
some ‘signature’ of direct collapse black holes which verify their existence, separate from other
black holes. This, of course, relies on there being sufficient remaining direct collapse black
holes to make observation plausible. The theoretical number density of these black holes has
been found to be highly dependent on the LW flux required for H2 suppression and the duration
over which this flux must be present (Habouzit et al. 2016). Simulations of viable direct
collapse regions found that a flux requirement at the higher end of recent predictions would
permit the existence of direct collapse black holes at redshifts greater than 6, but would prevent
direct collapse from being a viable explanation for observed galactic black holes. Alternatively,
assuming a flux requirement reduced by an order of magnitude, or conceding that only a short
irradiation is required, the simulation predicts a significant number of direct collapse black
holes within normal galaxies if the effects of supernovae are not significant. The critical flux
requirement is crucial to modelling direct collapse, but the value is strongly debated in the
literature - further work is undoubtedly needed to resolve this dispute.

Several observational signatures have been predicted to originate from direct collapse black
holes, one such signature is the result of pumping of atomic hydrogen by Lyman-α photons, in
which the electrons are raised to a higher energy state, resulting in population inversion and

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stimulated emission of microwave radiation (Djikstra et al. 2016a). The resultant emission is
predicted to possess a distinct hyperfine splitting profile that would provide direct evidence of
direct collapse black holes, and would potentially be detectable in planned ultra-deep surveys.
Alternatively, these black holes are also predicted to display a high luminosity in the Lyman-
α range and unique spectral lines, which may make them distinct from black holes formed by
other processes (Djikstra et al. 2016b). This luminosity would only be observed during certain
periods of the formation, however, and thus would need to be studied by high-sensitivity arrays
such as the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The JWST will also contribute
to photometric surveys such as that undertaken by Pacucci et al. (2016), which has already
isolated two likely candidates as possible black holes formed by direct collapse.

Conclusion
The existence of supermassive black holes at redshifts greater than 6 requires the consideration
of the direct collapse of gas halos as a formation mechanism for supermassive black hole seeds.
Simulations have shown that direct collapse is a viable model for the existence of many of
these seeds, although further research is needed to determine key parameters such as the critical
Lyman-Werner flux for H2 disassociation. Several constraints of the direct collapse model have
been applied to limit the viability of the process to pristine metal-free halos in the epoch
corresponding to redshifts between 14 and 20 – however, under the currently predicted values
of the required LW flux, these constraints do not prevent the formation of significant numbers
of direct collapse black holes. Future astronomical surveys, such as those carried out by the
JWST, will likely be able to provide evidence for direct collapse in the form of stimulated
microwave emission and UV signatures.

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