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Mysterious black hole discovered at the dawn of the universe

Mysterious black hole discover...
An artist's rendition of the most distant quasar discovered, which accrued a mass of 800 Suns in just 690 million years
An artist's rendition of the most distant quasar discovered, which accrued a mass of 800 Suns in just 690 million years
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The newly-discovered quasar dates back to a time when the first stars were firing up, just 690 million years after the Big Bang
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The newly-discovered quasar dates back to a time when the first stars were firing up, just 690 million years after the Big Bang
An artist's rendition of the most distant quasar discovered, which accrued a mass of 800 Suns in just 690 million years
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An artist's rendition of the most distant quasar discovered, which accrued a mass of 800 Suns in just 690 million years

At a distance of about 13 billion lightyears, the most distant supermassive black hole known so far has been spotted by an international team of astronomers. That incredible distance means the object dates back to the time when the first stars blinked on, which raises the question of how a black hole that big arose so soon after the universe began.

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. As the gas falls into the black hole, it speeds up, heats up and brightens, which allows astronomers to see them from across the universe.

"Quasars are among the brightest and most distant known celestial objects and are crucial to understanding the early universe," says Bram Venemans of the Max Planck Institute, co-author of a study describing the discovery.

This quasar was first identified in data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) program, then studied in closer detail by scientists using Carnegie Observatories' Magellan telescopes in Chile. There, a spectrometer known as the Folded-port InfraRed Echellette (FIRE) was able to determine the objects' distance and mass based on its "redshift."

Since the universe is constantly expanding, distant objects are moving away from us, which stretches out the wavelength of the light they emit. That means the light shifts towards the red end of the spectrum, and the higher an object's redshift, the further away it is. With a redshift of 7.5, the newly-discovered quasar began emitting light a mere 690 million years after the Big Bang, and the supermassive black hole at its center has 800 million times the mass of our Sun.

It's not the brightest or most massive – that honor belongs to a quasar called SDSS J0100+2802, which boasts barely-comprehensible stats like a mass of 12 billion Suns, and a luminosity of 420 trillion Suns. But this newly-discovered black hole is more than 200 million lightyears further away – and hence, 200 million years older.

The newly-discovered quasar dates back to a time when the first stars were firing up, just 690 million years after the Big Bang
The newly-discovered quasar dates back to a time when the first stars were firing up, just 690 million years after the Big Bang

That dates it to a time when the first stars started to light up the inky blackness of the early universe. As stars and galaxies began to fire up and release energy, the photons they emitted ionized the neutral hydrogen gas that previously filled the universe, marking a fundamental turning point in history. Using FIRE, the researchers determined that at the time this quasar began emitting light, the hydrogen gas around it was half neutral and half ionized.

"What we have found is that the universe was about 50/50 — it's a moment when the first galaxies emerged from their cocoons of neutral gas and started to shine their way out," says MIT's Robert Simcoe, co-author of the study. ""This adds to our understanding of our universe at large because we've identified that moment of time when the universe is in the middle of this very rapid transition from neutral to ionized. This is the most accurate measurement of that time, and a real indication of when the first stars turned on."

But there's a problem with the finding: the black hole appears to be far too big for its age. According to our current understanding, it should take more than 690 million years for a supermassive black hole to accrue the mass of 800 million Suns, so the researchers suggest there must be another unknown mechanism at work.

"This is the only object we have observed from this era," says Simcoe. "It has an extremely high mass, and yet the universe is so young that this thing shouldn't exist. The universe was just not old enough to make a black hole that big. It's very puzzling."

The research was published in the journal Nature.

Sources: MIT, NASA

9 comments
The deerhunter
At that age the light has been coming to us for 23 billion years. It possibly is not even in existence now and it certainly won't still be where it was when the light we see, left it!
John Kline Kurtz
Makes me question the proposed age of the universe. Somebody's assumptions are off!
Neil Larkins
Another possibility might be that these oh-so confident scientists really don't understand black holes and the age of the universe like they think they do.
Vernon Miles Kerr
Have these "puzzled" scientists considered that one or more of their "accepted" assumptions have been wrong, all along? When an experiment comes out with "puzzling" results, you need to go back and check each of the variables in the algorithm and see which one is faulty. Maybe the expansion after the Big Bang wasn't smooth but lumpy, and that particular corner of the early Universe had a lump of compacted matter, giving it a head start. Maybe the assumption that the Universe is only 13 BYO is incorrect because one of the variables used to arrive at that figure of 13 billion is faulty. As an aside: isn't it curious how photons just keep going forever? Is it because at the speed of light time stops? Would appreciate someone clarifying that question.
Douglas E Knapp
It is a whole left in the universe from the very big bang itself.
RobertEhresman
Heeck estimated the half-life of photons in our reference frame should be about 10^18 years, or on the order of 100 million times the current age of the Universe. So, if someone asks you if photons can decay, the answer is maybe.Jul 26, 2013
StefanL
These observations all rely on the assumption that the current methods of estimating cosmological distances are reliable.
JoeSTERN
Perhaps this black hole was formed by the compression at the center of the big bang itself, making it THE oldest object, and our crude method of estimating age is off by a few hundred moillion years. And how do we know there was only one big bang? That may be an invalid assumption too. There may be others so far away that no light or radiation from them has reached us yet, and there could be another one tomorrow. Maybe the whole thing has no beginning and no end, it just always is. Matter and photons speeding away from all the big bangs eventually intersect and collect in places where gravity brings them together until...fast forward a few trillion years...another big bang.
Vernon Miles Kerr
@RobertEhresman Thanks for that bit of info. I'm still fascinated about the relativistic aspects of photons traveling at light-speed where time theoretically stops. Or is it near-light-speed, in which case there would be aging. I read a book once by an SR-71 Blackbird pilot. On one trip the cabin lights were faulty and he lost them at full altitude (probably > than 100,000 ft.) He was worried about reading notes and making mandatory entries in his log, but he needn't have: on a moonless night, the stars alone gave enough light to easily continue his tasks.