Science

Astronomers observe most-distant supermassive black hole yet discovered

Astronomers observe most-distant supermassive black hole yet discovered

Eduardo Bañados, lead author of the article describing the discovery, says: "Reionization was the universe's last major transition, and it is one of the current frontiers in astrophysics". Bañados was looking in particular for quasars - some of the brightest objects in the universe, that consist of a supermassive black hole surrounded by swirling, accreting disks of matter.

However, black holes that formed in the early universe are different. The gravity is so intense that the matter can't escape, which in turn makes its gravitational pull that much stronger. That mass is not unusual for supermassive black holes, but it is hard to explain - using current black hole formation theories - how it came together at such an early time in the universe's history.

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. In effect, the light shows that quasar as it was 13 billion years ago, a mere 690 million years after the Big Bang.

Astronomers have found the monster black hole, almost as old as the universe itself, chewing through clouds. 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. Recent work suggests that these black holes could have gone through episodic growth spurts during which they devoured gas well over the Eddington rate.

Quasars are supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies that actively consume gas and dust.




"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", Daniel Stern of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, also a coauthor on the paper, said in another statement.

The newly discovered quasar adds a crucial data point: Its light shows that a significant fraction of hydrogen was still neutral 690 million years after the Big Bang. After hundreds of millions of years, young stars or quasars emitted enough light to strip the electrons back off these atoms, dissipating the cosmic fog like mist at dawn. After all, the first stars and galaxies already existed at the time. After things began to cool, these particles came together to form lots of hydrogen and some helium. Follow-up observations, as well as a search for similar quasars, are on track to put our picture of early cosmic history onto a solid footing.

An artist's impression of the supermassive black hole. That helped scientists estimate that the stars turned on roughly when it began its journey - about 696 million years after the big bang.

Fan hopes that more extensive searching will reveal even earlier black holes and the formation of first-generation galaxies. But this newly-discovered black hole is more than 200 million lightyears further away - and hence, 200 million years older. "They're rare, but they're very much there, and we need to figure out how they form", said Priyamvada Natarajan, an astrophysicist at Yale University who was not part of the research team.


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