Last updated January 11, 2018 at 10:35 am
Astronomers have discovered a supermassive black hole and a quasar from the Universe’s infancy – around 690 million years after the Big Bang.
The black hole has a mass that is 800 million times that of the Sun and is 13 billion light years away – the most distant we have ever detected and a window on what the Universe was like before the deionisation of hydrogen into the form it exists in today.
What really has scientists excited though, is the speed with which the black hole – dubbed J1342+0928 – grew.
“Gathering all this mass in fewer than 690 million years is an enormous challenge for theories of supermassive black hole growth,” said Carnegie Mellon University’s Eduardo Bañados, who led the study.
The black hole is at the the centre of a disc of swirling gas that is forming a quasar – the brightest objects in the Universe made up of superheated plasma emitted as the black hole tears apart the stars it feeds on.
It was discovered from the data gathered in three surveys – the DECam Legacy Survey at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile; NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer and the UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey.
The research has been published in the journal Nature.
Quasars are a valuable source of information about the early Universe and the hydrogen-filled void that existed before stars were formed.
J1342+0928 can give crucial information about the Epoch of Reonisation. Immediately after the Big Bang, the hot soup of particles rapidly spread apart in a period called inflation.
About 400,000 years after the Big Bang, these particles cooled and coalesced into neutral hydrogen gas but still no light could escape from this early Universe until gravity condensed matter into the first stars and galaxies.
These in turn emitted so much energy that the neutral hydrogen ionised – losing an electron.
Once the universe became reionsed, photons could travel freely throughout space.
Much of the hydrogen surrounding the newly discovered quasar is neutral, which means it is the only example we have that can be seen before the universe became reionised.
“It was the universe’s last major transition and one of the current frontiers of astrophysics,” Bañados said.