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Farthest-ever supermassive black hole reveals the early universe
07 December 2017, 09:05 | Lucia Cruz
Schematic representation of the look back into history
For instance, at nearly a billion solar masses, the quasar's central black hole is comparatively massive.
It is the most distant black hole ever seen by scientists.
Quasar J1342+0928 comes from a time known as the dark ages, where a spontaneous eruption was believed to create the Big Bang. The light of the newly discovered most distant quasar yet carries crucial information regarding one of the earliest phases of the universe, the so-called reionization phase.
"This actually suggests we've measured, to within one or two percent accuracy, the moment at which starlight first illuminated the universe", says Dr. Robert Simcoe, a physics professor at MIT and one of the authors of the study. They want to know what burned the fog away: stars, supermassive black holes, or both in tandem?
"The universe was just not old enough to make a black hole that big". As more giant telescopes are constructed, we'll be able to locate more of these objects, but this specific supermassive black hole gives us unique insight into the state of the early universe, as it existed shortly after the Big Bang. About half the hydrogen atoms near this quasar, however, are neutral, which means they're still holding onto their electrons. This shift from neutral to ionized hydrogen represented a fundamental change in the universe that has persisted to this day.
An artist's impression of the supermassive black hole.
"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", Simcoe says. "This is the most accurate measurement of that time, and a real indication of when the first stars turned on". Carnegie Institution for Science.
The black hole was detected by Eduardo Bañados, an astronomer at Carnegie, who found the object while combing through multiple all-sky surveys, or maps of the distant universe.
When the matter falls into the black hole, it heats up and allows the quasar to emit light, Simcoe said. FIRE is a spectrometer that classifies objects based on their infrared spectra. Redshift refers to the lengthening of the wavelength of light from an object, caused by the Doppler effect as the universe expands.
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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.
The higher the redshift, the greater the distance, and the farther back astronomers are looking in time when they observe the object.
Further observations of the quasar will provide researchers with even more constraints on how black holes in the early universe can form-giving a better insight into what happened just after the Big Bang.
The discovery, announced Wednesday, was of a supermassive black hole with 800 million solar masses which resides in a bright quasar, the light from where took 13 billion years to reach Earth. So basically these black holes either "ate" things much heavier than the sun, or simply sucked in so much gas and dust that they grew enormously.
The newly identified quasar appears to inhabit a pivotal moment in the universe's history. Once the universe became reionzed, photons could travel freely throughout space, thus the universe became transparent to light. They extrapolated from that to estimate that the universe as a whole was likely about half neutral and half ionized at the time they observed the quasar.
"This is a very exciting discovery", he said.
"It was the universe's last major transition and one of the current frontiers of astrophysics", Bañados said.
There is one large mystery that remains to be solved: How did a black hole of such massive proportions form so early in the universe's history? One scientist compared the team's discovery to finding a needle in a haystack - a very large and old haystack.
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