Published: Fri, December 08, 2017
Science | By Eileen Rhodes

Farthest (and earliest) supermassive black hole ever found

Farthest (and earliest) supermassive black hole ever found

This is very unlike the black holes that form in the present-day universe, which rarely exceed a few dozen solar masses. Quasar light can be decoded to yield information about the hydrogen atoms the light has encountered along its billion-light-year-journey.

"This is the only object we have observed from this era", study co-author Robert Simcoe, from MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, said in a statement.

Black holes are some of the most mysterious regions of space ever discovered. 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. They are known to be the driving force behind quasars which are one of the brightest objects in the Universe. Astronomers have found a quasar - an active supermassive black hole - that is so distant, and thus so far back in time, that it challenges their models of how these gargantuan objects form.

The unexpected discovery lends support to an idea put forth by some astronomers, including Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan, a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Then, the neutral hydrogen was ionized by the first quasars, which are supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies. The earliest known quasar is located 13.04 billion light years from Earth and existed about 750 million years after the Big Bang. It is the most distant black hole ever discovered.

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"This object gives us a picture of how the universe was when it was only five percent of its present age", Bañados says. Astronomers refer to this Doppler-like phenomenon as "redshift"; the more distant an object, the farther its light has shifted toward the red, or infrared end of the spectrum.

Given that large black holes are believed to grow from smaller "seeds", Simcoe added, "it seems this one is much larger than we would expect given how young the universe was at that time". What's extraordinary about this black hole, aside from its massive size, is that its discovery will help scientists comprehend the processes of their growth during the time the universe was still forming. For the objective of study of the effects these giant black holes have on the rest of the cosmos, researchers want to look at as many early supermassive black holes as possible. Eventually, gravity condensed matter into the first stars and galaxies, which in turn produced light in the form of photons. Stars and galaxies were first appearing and their radiation ionizing the surrounding hydrogen gas to illuminate the cosmos.

The newly-discovered black hole is part of a quasar, meaning it sits at the center of a cloud of gas that it's slowly swallowing. The observation using one of the Magellan telescope (bottom left) allows us to reconstruct information about the so-called reionization epoch ("bubbles" top-half right) that followed the Big Bang (top right).

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