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Astronomers observe most-distant supermassive black hole yet discovered

06 December 2017

The find of this supermassive black hole is puzzling astronomers because they can't figure out how this black hole was formed so early in the universe's history.

"Quasars are among the brightest and most-distant known celestial objects and are crucial to understanding the early universe", said Bram Venemans, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany. This newly discovered quasar has a redshift of 7.54, based on the detection of ionised carbon emissions from the galaxy that hosts the massive black hole. This quasar has a bolometric luminosity of 4×10L⊙ and a black hole mass of 8×10M⊙. It was taking shape just as the universe was undergoing a fundamental switch - one that saw the universe turn from being a misty cloud of nitrogen gas into a space where the very first stars were switch on. Scientists say even accumulating at the fastest known rate would not produce a supermassive black hole of 800 million solar masses in such a short amount of time.

The researchers have detected the most distant supermassive black hole ever observed.

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The black hole resides in a quasar and its light reaches us from when the universe was only 5% of its current age - over 13 billion years ago, or "just" 690 million years after the Big Bang. About 400,000 years after the initial explosion, the primordial soup of high energy particles cooled down to become a neutral hydrogen gas.

"The moment when the first stars turned on is when our universe filled with light", says Simcoe, who explains that when this light leaked out of the first galaxies, it interacted with the surrounding matter and changed its properties.

As more stars formed, they generated enough radiation to flip hydrogen from its neutral state to an ionized state. This means that much of the quasar's matter could be from a time we don't know much about, during which the universe was dark.

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"Here we see this thing that's very bright coming from very early in the universe", Simcoe said.

"This is a very exciting discovery, found by scouring the new generation of wide-area, sensitive surveys astronomers are conducting using NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer in orbit and ground-based telescopes in Chile and Hawaii", said Daniel Stern of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

According to MIT, black holes grow into supermassive voids as mass slowly accumulates, and this specific black hole should have taken more than 690 million years to come together.

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Though cosmologists estimate the early universe hosted between 20 and 100 quasars, until now, only one had been found at such a dramatic distance. "With several next-generation, even-more-sensitive facilities now being built, we can expect many exciting discoveries in the very early universe in the coming years".

Astronomers observe most-distant supermassive black hole yet discovered