Oldest supermassive black hole ever found is spotted 13.7 billion light-years away

Lurking in a vast expanse of space, 13.7 billion light-years away, astronomers have discovered a monster black hole.

Oldest supermassive black hole ever found is spotted 13.7 billion light-years away

The light from this supermassive hole has reached Earth from a time when the universe was in its nascent stages, when it was a mere 5% of its current age. This means the supermassive black hole formed just 690 million years after the Big Bang.

What’s remarkable about the supermassive black hole in question is its mass, which comes in at 800 million times that of our Sun. That such enormous black holes were growing so soon after the Big Bang (relatively speaking), has prompted myriad questions concerning the conditions of the early universe.

The discovery was made by a team of astronomers, led by the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Eduardo Bañados, which observed the cosmic entity in a luminous quasar (itself a huge celestial object comprised of black holes, emitting large amounts of energy).

“Gathering all this mass in fewer than 690 million years is an enormous challenge for theories of supermassive black hole growth,” Bañados said. It suggests to astronomers that the early universe had conditions that facilitated the creation of large black holes with masses of up to 100,000 times that of the Sun.

This becomes all the more stark when contrasted with black holes formed in the present-day universe, which rarely wield a mass of more than a few dozen times our Sun. Negligible, really.

What’s more, the Bañados quasar, as it’s being dubbed, stems from a particularly mysterious time in the universe’s history. Known as the epoch of reionization, what sounds like the working title of a sci-fi novel in fact refers to the universe at the stage it emerged from its dark ages; reionization caused photons to travel freely throughout space, rendering the universe transparent to light. The presence of neutral hydrogen in Bañados’ quasar’s surroundings shows the gas in its pre-ionized phase, suggesting the entity itself is a source in the epoch of reionization.

Summing up the magnitude of the findings in relation to the epoch of reionization, Bañados explained that: “It was the universe’s last major transition and one of the current frontiers of astrophysics”.

The quasar is predicted to be one of anywhere between 20 and 100 of its kind existing in the sky, so the discovery signals a huge leap forward in the process of discerning its celestial peers. What the venture needs now is some amped-up kit, Las Campas Director Leopoldo Infante said: “This important discovery, together with the detection of distant galaxies, is elucidating the conditions of the universe during the reionization epoch. While we wait for the construction of the new generation of giant telescopes, such as the GMT, telescopes such as the Magellans at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile will continue to play a crucial role in the study of the early universe.”

Over to NASA, whose Daniel Stern of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena stoked anticipation: “With several next-generation, even-more-sensitive facilities currently being built, we can expect many exciting discoveries in the very early universe in the coming years.”

Header image: by Robin Dienel, courtesey of the Carnegie Institution for Science.

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