Research

Supermassive black hole tells us when the first stars were born

Supermassive black hole tells us when the first stars were born

A team led by Eduardo Bañados, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena, found the new black hole by searching through old data for objects with the right color to be ultradistant quasars - the visible signatures of supermassive black holes swallowing gas.

"This is a very exciting discovery", he said. Bañados says: "Gathering all this mass in fewer than 690 million years is an enormous challenge for theories of supermassive black hole growth".

Our understandings of the formation and beginnings of the universe suggest that a black hole with such a huge mass shouldn't actually have been able to form, scientists say. In black holes, gravity has such a strong pull that not even light can escape.

That dates it to a time when the first stars started to light up the inky blackness of the early universe.

Artist's conception of the discovery of the most-distant quasar known.

Another study author, Robert Simcoe of MIT, said "this is the only object we have observed from this era".

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. The universe was just not old enough to make a black hole that big.

Quasars are powered by supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies - in this case, a black hole with nearly a billion times the mass of the Sun.

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Black holes are endlessly fascinating phenomena.

The universe is thought to be about 13.7 billion years old, meaning this supermassive black hole and quasar existed when the universe was in its infancy or only 5 percent of its current age.

The new black hole's mass, calculated after more observations, adds to an existing problem.

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.

"With several next-generation, even-more-sensitive facilities now being built, we can expect many exciting discoveries in the very early universe in the coming years", Daniel Stern of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, also a coauthor on the paper, said in another statement.

"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. That means the light shifts towards the red end of the spectrum, and the higher an object's redshift, the further away it is. After things began to cool, these particles came together to form lots of hydrogen and some helium.

Though cosmologists estimate the early universe hosted between 20 and 100 quasars, until now, only one had been found at such a dramatic distance. So this black hole may also hold a few keys to that mystery. Immediately following the Big Bang, the universe resembled a cosmic soup of hot, extremely energetic particles. Extremely large black holes, such as the one identified by Simcoe and his colleagues, should form over periods much longer than 690 million years.