"The number of quasars as luminous and as distant as we've just found ... there should be between 20 and 100 over the entire sky", Eduardo Bañados of Carnegie and lead author of the study says. "Gathering all this mass in fewer than 690 million years is an enormous challenge for theories of supermassive black hole growth". That incredible distance means the object dates back to the time when the first stars blinked on, which raises the question of how a black hole that big arose so soon after the universe began. In black holes, gravity has such a strong pull that not even light can escape. This is the most distant quasar-a supermassive black hole surrounded by a disk of gas-ever identified and it will help astronomers to better understand exactly how black holes grew when the universe was first forming.
Schematic representation at top of page of the look back into history that is possible by the discovery of the most distant quasar yet known.
"It's very puzzling", Robert Simcoe from Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, who was a coauthor on the research, said in a statement Wednesday.
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"This black hole grew far larger than we expected in only 690 million years after the Big Bang, which challenges our theories about how black holes form", said study co-author Daniel Stern of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. As the gas falls into the black hole, it speeds up, heats up and brightens, which allows astronomers to see them from across the universe.
The black hole is 800 million times larger than our sun, nestled inside a bright object called a quasar, which is an emanating light that took 13 billion years to reach Earth.
The team believes that the newly discovered black hole existed in an environment that was about half neutral, half ionized.
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Scientists just found a very huge, very young supermassive black hole. Quasar light can be decoded to yield information about the hydrogen atoms the light has encountered along its billion-light-year-journey.
This was a major moment in history, he adds: "It's when the universe first started manufacturing chemicals other than hydrogen and helium, all the elements of the periodic table were starting to be formed".
This quasar is especially interesting because it comes from a time when the universe was just beginning to emerge from its dark ages. "With several next-generation, even-more-sensitive facilities now being built, we can expect many exciting discoveries in the very early universe in the coming years". It also did this extremely fast, at least by the standards of the universe, which scientists have estimated is 13.8 billion years old. After all, the first stars and galaxies already existed at the time. It's part of a long-term search for the earliest quasars, which will continue.
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After analyzing the quasar, the scientists found a lot of the hydrogen surrounding it is neutral, which suggests that the supermassive black hole formed during the reionization phase after the Big Bang. They want to know what burned the fog away: stars, supermassive black holes, or both in tandem?