Massive Black Hole Reveals When The First Stars Blinked On

Olive Hawkins
December 6, 2017

Astronomers who found the farthest supermassive black hole say it grew super quickly when the universe was just a newborn, making it a rare and mysterious space object.

The size of the black hole makes it an anomaly.

The scientists spotted the supermassive black hole within a quasar, the bright center of a galaxy that consists of both one of these enormous black holes as well as a disk of material that orbits the black hole. "It's very puzzling", says MIT physics professor Robert Simcoe.

The new observations - detailed in the journal Nature - reveal the black hole as it was just 690 million years after the birth of the universe.

After analyzing the quasar, the scientists found a lot of the hydrogen surrounding it is neutral, which suggests that the supermassive black hole formed during the reionization phase after the Big Bang.

"In some sense, what we've done is determine with a high degree of accuracy when the first stars in the universe turned on", he said.

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).

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The Big Bang started the universe as a hot, murky soup of extremely energetic particles that was rapidly expanding. This newly discovered black hole has a mass that is 800 million times the mass of our Sun.

As more stars and galaxies filled the void, their radiation began to energize the hydrogen, allowing the electrons bound to the nucleus to recombine and generate other chemical reactions.

The quasar's distance is described by a property called its redshift - a measurement of how much the wavelength of its light is stretched by the expansion of the Universe before reaching Earth. It's especially interesting because the bulk of the hydrogen in the quasar appears to be neutral, rather than ionized.

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

"We think of them as being something that's eternal, but really, there was a time when the universe was just dark matter", he said. Even older examples could be discovered, scientists said.

Even in the most generous and optimistic estimate of the formation of black holes, creating such a massive one in such a relatively short period of time would be impossible. It's part of a long-term search for the earliest quasars, which will continue.

Over to NASA, whose Daniel Stern of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena stoked anticipation: "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".

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