Published: Thu, December 07, 2017
Research | By Raquel Erickson

Colossal distant black hole holds surprises about early universe

Colossal distant black hole holds surprises about early universe

Scientists have no explanation for how a supermassive black hole existed a mere 690 million years after the Big Bang brought the universe into existence. This means that much of the quasar's matter could be from a time we don't know much about, during which the universe was dark. Astronomers have only ever discovered one object of comparable size in this era of the early universe.

"It's very puzzling", Robert Simcoe from Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, who was a coauthor on the research, said in a statement Wednesday. "It has an extremely high mass, and yet the universe is so young that this thing shouldn't exist".

Black holes are a big mystery.

Astronomers have spied the most-distant supermassive black hole yet discovered using the Magellan Telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. This shift from neutral to ionized hydrogen represented a fundamental change in the universe that has persisted to this day.

Black holes are endlessly fascinating phenomena. 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.


In a study published in Nature, an worldwide team of scientists has now found the most distant (therefore earliest) quasar ever discovered. Carnegie Institution for Science.

The astronomer who found the unusual 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. FIRE is a spectrometer that classifies objects based on their infrared spectra. But even more exciting than the black hole itself is the luminous disk of gas orbiting it-combined, the black hole and gas disk form a system called a quasar, and this one is shedding new light on the early cosmos. We'll find out as astronomers look at it more closely.

The most interesting aspect of this supermassive black hole is its age - it's 13 billion light years away, which scientists determined via redshift.

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 newly identified quasar appears to inhabit a pivotal moment in the universe's history. After the energetic particles from the Big Bang cooled, they formed neutral hydrogen. "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". 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. 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. "We now have the most accurate measurements to date of when the first stars were turning on". Explaining how such a massive black hole could have formed in such a comparatively short amount of available time is a challenge for models of supermassive black hole formation, and effectively rules out some of those models. It's thought that black holes grow by accreting, or absorbing mass from the surrounding environment.

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