A Giant Black Hole May Be The Oldest In The Universe

Astronomers Find the Earliest Supermassive Black Hole Ever Discovered

Astronomers Find the Earliest Supermassive Black Hole Ever Discovered

A team led by Eduardo Bañados, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena, found the new black hole by searching through old data for objects with the right color to be ultradistant quasars - the visible signatures of supermassive black holes swallowing gas. Its very existence at that point in time challenges current notions about the formation and growth of such objects, they said.

The astronomer who found the odd black hole said that there's no way of explaining how a black hole would be able to pick up such mass, and that it might challenge out current understandings of how black holes form. In black holes, gravity has such a strong pull that not even light can escape. Using the black hole, scientists can now predict when stars began lighting up the universe within an accuracy of about 1 to 2 percent.

But now that they have found one nestled inside a quasar, there could be dozens more of these ancient and massive objects in the skies around us.

"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.

The black hole is even more puzzling because of what was happening in the universe at that time. Based on the quasar's redshift, the researchers calculated the mass of the black hole at its center and determined that it is around 800 million times the mass of the sun. The stars and interstellar dust are dominated by carbon, but heavier materials like magnesium, silicon, and nitrogen are also seen accreting into the black hole at the center. This quasar has a bolometric luminosity of 4×10L⊙ and a black hole mass of 8×10M⊙. "It has an extremely high mass, and yet the universe is so young that this thing shouldn't exist". Redshift refers to the lengthening of the wavelength of light from an object, caused by the Doppler effect as the universe expands. As more stars and galaxies formed, they eventually generated enough radiation to flip hydrogen from neutral, a state in which hydrogen's electrons are bound to their nucleus, to ionized, in which the electrons are set free to recombine at random.

This was a major moment in history, he adds: "It's when the universe first started manufacturing chemicals other than hydrogen and helium, all the elements of the periodic table were starting to be formed". They want to know what burned the fog away: stars, supermassive black holes, or both in tandem? That helped scientists estimate that the stars turned on roughly when it began its journey - about 696 million years after the big bang. As the universe expanded in size, those particles cooled down, and as they did they formed into a neutral hydrogen gas during which it was completely dark.

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? Extremely large black holes, such as the one identified by Simcoe and his colleagues, should form over periods much longer than 690 million years.

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