Astronomers observe most-distant supermassive black hole yet discovered

Astronomers observe most-distant supermassive black hole yet discovered

"Quasars are among the brightest and most distant known celestial objects and are crucial to understanding the early universe", said co-author Bram Venemans of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany.

It is the most distant black hole ever seen by scientists. The results were published today in papers in Nature and Astrophysical Journal Letters. In this approach, collapsing clouds in the early universe gave birth to overgrown baby black holes that weighed thousands or tens of thousands of solar masses. Based on the quasar's redshift, the researchers calculated the mass of the black hole at its center and determined that it is around 800 million times the mass of the sun.

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.

The astronomer who found the odd black hole said that there's no way of explaining how a black hole would be able to pick up such mass, and that it might challenge out current understandings of how black holes form.

"Something is causing gas within the quasar to move around at very high speed, and the only phenomenon we know that achieves such speeds is orbit around a supermassive black hole", Simcoe says.

The discovery of a massive black hole so early in the universe may provide key clues on conditions at that time, which allowed for huge black holes to form.


Study lead author Eduardo Bañados of the Carnegie Institution for Science said that "gathering all this mass in fewer than 690 million years is an enormous challenge for theories of supermassive black hole growth". Quasar light can be decoded to yield information about the hydrogen atoms the light has encountered along its billion-light-year-journey. As more stars and galaxies formed, they eventually generated enough radiation to flip hydrogen from neutral, a state in which hydrogen's electrons are bound to their nucleus, to ionized, in which the electrons are set free to recombine at random. The black hole formed only 690 million years after the Big Bang - aka, when the universe was just 5 percent of its current age, NPR writes. "We're used to the idea of the stars being nearly eternal, but there actually was a time before there were any stars, when the universe was dark". As more stars turned on throughout the universe, their photons reacted with neutral hydrogen, ionizing the gas and setting off what's known as the epoch of re-ionization. In the coming years, astronomers hope to find more.

But now that they have found one nestled inside a quasar, there could be dozens more of these ancient and massive objects in the skies around us.

Though cosmologists estimate the early universe hosted between 20 and 100 quasars, until now, only one had been found at such a dramatic distance.

Since the universe is constantly expanding, distant objects are moving away from us, which stretches out the wavelength of the light they emit.

Astronomers have at least two gnawing questions about the first billion years of the universe, an era steeped in literal fog and figurative mystery.

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