Oldest monster black hole ever found is 800 million times bigger than the Sun

Artist illustration of the most distant supermassive black hole ever discovered, that is part of a quasar from just 690 million years after the Big Bang.

(Robin Dienel, courtesy of the Carnegie Institution for Science)

Astronomers have discovered that the oldest supermassive black hole ever found, a behemoth that grew to 800 million times the mass of the sun when the universe was only 5 percent of its current age, a new study found.

This renewed giant black hole, which arises only 690 million years after the Big Bang, a day could shed light on a number of cosmic mysteries, such as the way in which black holes could have reached gigantic sizes soon after the big Bang and how the universe got erased from the murky fog that once filled the entire cosmos, the researchers said in the new study.

Supermassive black holes with masses of millions to billions of times that of the sun are thought to lurk at the heart of most, if not all, of the galaxies. Earlier research suggested this giants release extraordinarily large amounts of light when they tear up at the stars and devour the matter, and probably the driving force behind quasars, which are among the brightest objects in the universe. [The Strangest Black Holes in the Universe]

Astronomers can detect quasars from the furthest reaches of the cosmos, quasars, among the most distant objects known. The farthest quasars are also the earliest known quasars — the more remote, the more time the light took to reach Earth.

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  • Quasars

The previous record of the oldest, most distant quasar was set by ULAS J1120+0641. That quasar is located 13.04 billion light years from the Earth that existed about 750 million years after the Big Bang. The new quasar (and the black hole), named ULAS J1342+0928, is 13.1 billion light years away.

How black-hole monsters grow

To explain how the black holes would have swallowed enough matter to reach supermassive sizes early in the cosmic history has proven to be a extraordinarily challenging for scientists. As such, the researchers want to look at as many early supermassive black holes as possible to learn more about their growth and their effects on the rest of the cosmos.

“The most distant quasars can provide important insights on open questions in astrophysics,” said study lead author Eduardo Bañados, an astrophysicist at the Carnegie Institution for Science.

The researchers predicted that only 20 to 100 quasars as bright and as far as the new quasar exists in the whole sky visible from the Earth.

“This particular quasar is so bright that it can be a gold mine for the follow-up studies and will be a crucial laboratory for studying the early universe,” said Bañados “We have already secured observations of this object with some of the most powerful telescopes in the world. More surprises may arise.”

The find of a behemoth

The researchers detected and analyzed quasar ULAS J1342+0928, using one of the Magellan Telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, as well as the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona and the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii. Its central black hole has a mass of about 800 million times that of the sun and existed when the universe was only 690 million years old, or only 5 percent of its current age. [No Escape: The Anatomy of a Black Hole (Infographic)]

“All that mass — almost 1 billion times the mass of the sun must be collected in less than 690 million years,” Bañados said. “That is very difficult to achieve and is something that theorists will have to explain in their models.”

Quasars as J1342+0928 are rare. The researchers were looking for a tenth of the entire sky visible from the Earth and found only a quasar from the early period.

Only about 60 million years separated from this new quasar from the previous record holder. Still, this time was “approximately 10 percent of the age of the universe at early cosmic epochs, in which the things, is evolving very quickly,” Bañados said. That means that this difference in time could yield important clues about the evolution of the early universe.

This new quasar is also of interest to scientists because it comes from a time known as “the epoch of reionization,” when the universe emerged from the dark ages. “It was the universe’s last major transition, and one of the current frontiers in astrophysics,” Bañados said in a statement.

Right after the Big Bang, the universe was a rapidly expanding hot soup of ions, or electrically charged particles. About 380,000 years later, these ions are cooled and coalesced into neutral hydrogen gas. The universe remained dark until gravity pulled matter together in the first stars. The intense ultraviolet light of this time caused this murky neutral hydrogen to get excited and ionize, or gains electric charge, and the gas remained in that state since that time. Once the universe became reionized, light can travel freely through the space.

Glimpsing the early universe

Much is still unknown about the epoch of reionization, such as which sources of light caused reionization. Some earlier work suggested that massive stars were responsible for reionization, but other research has hinted that black holes were an important and potentially dominant, culprit behind this event. [7 Surprising Things About the Universe]

“How and when the reionization of the universe occurred has fundamental consequences for how the universe has evolved,” Bañados said.

The new findings showed that a large part of the hydrogen in the immediate vicinity of the new quasar was neutral in charge. This suggests that these quasar comes from well within the epoch of reionization, and further analysis of it could give insight into what happened during this crucial time.

However, to really learn more about the epoch of reionization, scientists need more than just one or two early, distant quasars, to watch. “We need more of these quasars at a comparable or greater distances,” Bañados said. “This is very difficult, because they are very rare. This really is like finding the needle in a haystack.”

Still, the fact that this new quasar is so bright and large, suggests that “it is probably not the first quasar ever formed, so we need to keep searching,” Bañados said.

The scientists detailed their findings in the Dec. 7 issue of the journal Nature. The researchers also released a companion paper in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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