Colossal distant black hole holds surprises about early universe

December 8, 2017 - 9:10 AM
Artist's conception of the most-distant supermassive black hole ever discovered, which is part of a quasar from just 690 million years after the Big Bang. (Courtesy Robin Dienel/Carnegie Institution for Science/Handout via Reuters)

WASHINGTON — The oldest and most distant black hole ever observed — a celestial brute 800 million times more massive than the sun — is providing scientists some surprises about the nature of the universe when, on a cosmic scale, it was a mere toddler.

Astronomers on Wednesday said the black hole, residing at the center of a highly luminous celestial object called a quasar, is located about 13.1 billion light years away from Earth. The quasar’s light detected by the researchers dates back to about 690 million years after the Big Bang that created the universe, when the cosmos was only 5 percent of its present age.

“So if the universe was a 50-year-old person, we’re seeing a picture of that person when he or she was 2-1/2 years old,” said astronomer Eduardo Bañados of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who led the research published in the journal Nature.

“When we’re looking at further distances, we’re also looking back in time” because of the time it takes for light to travel across the universe, Bañados added. That means this object dates back 13.1 billion years. By way of comparison, Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.

The newly detected quasar, designated as J1342+0928, existed during a fundamental shift in the nature of the early universe when it was moving from its “dark ages,” with no light emitted, into a time of luminosity, as gravity condensed matter into the very first stars.

“This object provides us with a measurement of the time at which the universe first became illuminated with starlight,” said another of the researchers, physics professor Robert Simcoe of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

Finding such a large black hole existing so early in the universe’s history surprised the researchers. Its very existence at that point in time challenges current notions about the formation and growth of such objects, they said.

“The universe is full of surprises,” Bañados said.

Quasars, energized by gases spiraling at high speeds into an enormous black hole, are known to inhabit the center of certain galaxies, sometimes outshining all the stars in those galaxies. In black holes, gravity has such a strong pull that not even light can escape. This black hole was seen devouring material at the center of a galaxy.

The object was studied using ground-based telescopes in Chile and Hawaii and NASA’s orbiting Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).