Farthest-ever supermassive black hole reveals the early universe

Schematic representation of the look back into history

Schematic representation of the look back into history

The quasar's light detected by the researchers dates back to about 690 million years after the Big Bang that created the universe, when the cosmos was only 5 percent of its present age. As far as we know, it shouldn't be able to exist, and it just might re-write our understanding of the early universe.

The new black hole's mass, calculated after more observations, adds to an existing problem. The universe was just not old enough to make a black hole that big. This shift from neutral to ionized hydrogen represented a fundamental change in the universe that has persisted to this day. The stars and interstellar dust are dominated by carbon, but heavier materials like magnesium, silicon, and nitrogen are also seen accreting into the black hole at the center.

"What we have found is that the universe was about 50/50 - it's a moment when the first galaxies emerged from their cocoons of neutral gas and started to shine their way out", says MIT's Robert Simcoe, co-author of the study. "This is the most accurate measurement of that time, and a real indication of when the first stars turned on".

The black hole, announced today in the journal Nature, is the most distant ever found.

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"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. The researchers also show that the black hole already weighed a hard-to-explain 780 million times the mass of the sun.

Astronomers combined data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) with ground-based surveys to identify potential distant objects to study, then followed up with Carnegie Observatories' Magellan telescopes in Chile. FIRE is a spectrometer that classifies objects based on their infrared spectra.

For black holes to become so large in the early universe, astronomers speculate there must have been special conditions to allow rapid growth - but the underlying reason remains mysterious. In the coming years, astronomers hope to find more. The higher an object's redshift, the further away it is, both in space and time. That, of course, gives us its age: the light took 13 billion years to reach our telescopes. This quasar has a bolometric luminosity of 4×10L⊙ and a black hole mass of 8×10M⊙. The galaxy, for its age and time period, is far more rich in metals than it should be, considering the first generation of stars were comprised nearly entirely of hydrogen and helium. Eventually gravity condensed matter and the first few stars and galaxies were born. At that time, space was undergoing the epoch of re-ionization - turning from a largely opaque medium to one in which light could travel freely, making it visible.

At a distance of about 13 billion lightyears, the most distant supermassive black hole known so far has been spotted by an global team of astronomers. It's part of a long-term search for the earliest quasars, which will continue. They extrapolated from that to estimate that the universe as a whole was likely about half neutral and half ionized at the time they observed the quasar.

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