Astronomers discovered the oldest supermassive black hole ever found, a giant that grew to 800 million times the mass of the sun when the universe was only 5 percent of its current age, a new study finds.
This newly discovered black hole giant, which formed only 690 million years after the Big Bang, could one day help shed light on a series of cosmic mysteries, such as how black holes could have reached gigantic sizes quickly after Big Bang and how the universe was released The researchers said in the new study that
it is thought that supermassive black holes with masses of millions to billions of times that of the sun lurk in the hearts of the majority, if not of all the galaxies. Previous research suggested that these giants release extraordinarily large amounts of light when they destroy stars and devour matter, and are likely to be the driving force behind quasars, which are among the brightest objects in the universe. [The Strangest Black Holes in the Universe]
Astronomers can detect quasars from the most remote corners of the cosmos, converting quasars into the most distant known objects. The most distant quasars are also the oldest known quasars: the more distant one is, the longer it takes for its light to reach Earth.
The previous record for the oldest and most distant quasar was established by ULAS J1120 + 0641. That quasar is 13.04 billion light-years from Earth and existed about 750 million years after the Big Bang. The newly discovered quasar (and its black hole), called ULAS J1342 + 0928, is 13,100 million light-years away.
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How black hole monsters grow
Explaining how black holes could swallow enough stuff to reach sizes supermassive The beginnings of cosmic history have proven to be extraordinarily challenging for scientists. As such, researchers want to see as many early supermassive black holes as possible to learn more about their growth and its effects on the rest of the cosmos.
"The more distant quasars can provide key information about pending issues in astrophysics," said study lead author Eduardo Bañados, an astrophysicist at the Carnegie Institution for Science.
The researchers predicted that only 20 to 100 quasars as bright and as distant as the newly discovered quasar exist throughout the sky visible from Earth.
"This particular quasar is so bright that it will become a gold mine for follow-up studies and will be a crucial laboratory for studying the universe early," Bañados told Space.com. "We have already obtained observations for this object with several of the most powerful telescopes in the world, and more surprises may arise."
Finding a Giant
Researchers detected and analyzed quasar ULAS J1342 + 0928 using one of the Magellan Telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, as well as the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona and the Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii. Its central black hole has a mass about 800 million times that of the sun and existed when the universe was only 690 million years old, or only 5 percent of its current age. [No Escape: The Anatomy of a Black Hole (Infographic)]
"All that mass, almost a billion times the mass of the sun, needs to be collected in less than 690 million years," Bañados said. "That's extremely difficult to achieve and it's something that theorists will need to explain in their models."
Quasars such as J1342 + 0928 are rare. The researchers looked for a tenth of the entire sky visible from Earth and found only one quasar from this early time.
Only about 60 million years separate this newly discovered quasar from the previous record holder. Even so, this lapse of time was "approximately 10 percent of the age of the universe in those early cosmic epochs, when things evolved very quickly," Bañados said. That means that this difference in time could shed important clues about the evolution of the early universe.
This new quasar is also of interest to scientists because it comes from a time known as "the time of reionization", when the universe emerged from its dark age "It was the last great transition of the universe and one of the current frontiers of astrophysics, "Bañados said in a statement.
Right after the Big Bang, the universe was a hot soup of expanding ions, or electrically charged particles. Approximately 380,000 years later, these ions were cooled and fused in neutral hydrogen gas. The universe remained dark until gravity attracted matter to the first stars. The intense ultraviolet light of this time caused this turbid neutral hydrogen to be excited and ionized, or to gain electrical charge, and the gas has remained in that state since that time. Once the universe was reionized, light could travel freely through space.
Early Glimpse of Universe
The time of reionization is still unknown, such as what sources of light caused reionization. Some previous work suggested that massive stars were mostly responsible for reionization, but other investigations hinted that black holes were a major, and potentially dominant, culprit behind this event. [7 Surprising Things About the Universe]
"How and when the reionization of the universe occurred has fundamental implications for how the universe evolved," said Bañados.
The new findings revealed that a large fraction of the hydrogen in the vicinity of the newly discovered quasar was neutrally charged. This suggests that this quasar comes well within the time of the reionization, and a deeper analysis of it could shed light on what happened during this crucial moment.
However, to learn more about the time of reionization, scientists need more than just one or two early and distant quasars to look at. "We need to find more of these quasars at similar or greater distances," Bañados said. "This is extremely difficult, since they are very rare, this is really like finding the needle in a haystack."
Even so, the fact that this newly discovered quasar is so large and bright suggests that "it probably is not the first quasar formed, so we have to keep looking," Bañados said.
The scientists detailed their findings in the December 7 issue of the journal Nature. The researchers also published a companion article in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.