Astronomers Find the Earliest Supermassive Black Hole Ever Discovered

Astronomers Find the Earliest Supermassive Black Hole Ever Discovered

Farthest-ever supermassive black hole reveals the early universe

As far as we know, it shouldn't be able to exist, and it just might re-write our understanding of the early universe.

Several astronomical institutions today (December 6, 2017) are announcing the most-distant-yet luminous quasar, containing the most-distant-yet supermassive black hole.

"The universe is full of surprises", Bañados said.

The discovery of a massive black hole so early in the universe may provide key clues on conditions at that time, which allowed for huge black holes to form.

Another study author, Robert Simcoe of MIT, said "this is the only object we have observed from this era. Only one quasar was known to exist at a redshift greater than seven before now, despite extensive searching", said Xiaohui Fan of the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory.

The black hole is pinpointed to a location of when the universe was 690-million-years-old, or roughly five percent of its current age, according to the calculations.

It's a truly gargantuan black hole, some 800 million times the mass of our sun. Eduardo Bañados of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC led the team of astronomers that made this discovery, using Carnegie's Magellan telescopes in Chile. Extremely large black holes, such as the one identified by Simcoe and his colleagues, should form over periods much longer than 690 million years. That suggests that another, entirely unknown, process was happening at the same time.

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"If you start with a seed like a big star, and let it grow at the maximum possible rate, and start at the moment of the Big Bang, you could never make something with 800 million solar masses - it's unrealistic", Simcoe says. "So there must be another way that it formed".

Astronomers have found the monster black hole, almost as old as the universe itself, chewing through clouds.

But for now, he's happy to have answered one of the fundamental questions about the age of the universe: when the stars began to twinkle.

"The moment when the first stars turned on is when our universe filled with light", says Simcoe, who explains that when this light leaked out of the first galaxies, it interacted with the surrounding matter and changed its properties. "This is the most accurate measurement of that time, and a real indication of when the first stars turned on".

This was a major moment in history, he adds: "It's when the universe first started manufacturing chemicals other than hydrogen and helium, all the elements of the periodic table were starting to be formed". After the energetic particles from the Big Bang cooled, they formed neutral hydrogen. Stars then switched on and reacted with the swirling hydrogen, beginning of process of re-ionization. From this, they inferred that stars must have begun turning on during this time, 690 million years after the Big Bang. The energy released by these ancient galaxies caused the neutral hydrogen strewn throughout the universe to get excited and ionize, or lose an electron, a state that the gas has remained in since that time.

Astronomers started by studying the quasar's emission spectrum, from which they could figure out how fast the system is moving away from us.

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