Supermassive black hole is the most distant one ever spotted

Federico Mansilla
Diciembre 7, 2017

Scientists have just discovered a supermassive black hole that existed surprisingly early in the history of the universe, and the puzzling find is shedding new light on when the first stars blinked on. 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.

The black hole in this newest, most distant quasar is 800 million times the mass of our sun. But in the early universe, astronomers believe conditions were more favorable to the growth of supermassive black holes.

"This is the only object we have observed from this era", says Simcoe.

Prior to this discovery, the record-holder for the furthest known quasar existed when the Universe was about 800 million years old.

Black holes are a big mystery. This is very unlike the black holes that form in the present-day universe, which rarely exceed a few dozen solar masses.

The newly discovered quasar hails from the time of reionization, when light from the earliest stars and galaxies exited neutral hydrogen gas atoms, causing them to ionize, or lose an electron. This shift from neutral to ionized hydrogen represented a fundamental change in the universe that has persisted to this day.

It is the most distant black hole ever seen by scientists.

"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", Simcoe says. As more stars formed from the remains of first-generation stars, they became "polluted" with heavier elements and in turn produce even heavier elements when they explode in supernovae.

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

I am a Carnegie-Princeton fellow at the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science and the Department of Astrophysical Sciences of Princeton University.

Now the discovery of a supermassive black hole smack in the middle of this period is helping astronomers resolve both questions. When you think of a black hole, you're likely thinking of a stellar black hole, which forms when a star explodes in a spectacular supernova, and the remaining core collapses under the weight of its own gravity. There, a spectrometer known as the Folded-port InfraRed Echellette (FIRE) was able to determine the objects' distance and mass based on its "redshift". "The universe is enormous and searching for these very rare objects is like looking for the needle in the haystack". That means the light from this quasar has been traveling our way for more than 13 billion years.

The redshift measurement is 7.54, making it the second of only two known quasars with a redshift above 7.

The team found the quasar as part of a project to seek out the most distant supermassive black holes in the universe.

The newly identified quasar appears to inhabit a pivotal moment in the universe's history. As the universe expanded in size, those particles cooled down, and as they did they formed into a neutral hydrogen gas during which it was completely dark. From this, they inferred that stars must have begun turning on during this time, 690 million years after the Big Bang. 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".

And the existence of early black holes has been predicted to be a key telltale as to whether or not the idea may be valid.

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