Published: Thu, December 07, 2017
Sci-tech | By Carrie Guzman

Farthest-ever supermassive black hole reveals the early universe

Farthest-ever supermassive black hole reveals the early universe

Bañados and colleagues explored another possibility: If you start at the new black hole's current mass and rewind the tape, sucking away matter at the Eddington rate until you approach the Big Bang, you see it must have initially formed as an object heavier than 1,000 times the mass of the sun. "Gathering all this mass in fewer than 690 million years is an enormous challenge for theories of supermassive black hole growth", said Eduardo Bañados, the Carnegie scientist who spotted it.

Quasars are the most luminous non-transient objects known, and as such they enable studies of the Universe at the earliest cosmic epochs. The newly discovered quasar shines as brightly as 40 trillion suns. Whether they're ripping through the universe at thousands of miles a second or potentially serving as portals to alternate realities, physicists amateur and professional alike remain fascinated with them. Redshift refers to the lengthening of the wavelength of light from an object, caused by the Doppler effect as the universe expands. Some hundreds of millions of years later, the energetic ultraviolet radiation of the first stars and the accretion disks of the first black holes reionized almost all of the hydrogen in the universe, separating the electrons from the hydrogen nuclei (protons). It's especially interesting because the bulk of the hydrogen in the quasar appears to be neutral, rather than ionized.

Quasars as young as this one also yield valuable information about galaxy evolution.

This is very unlike the black holes that form in the present-day universe, which rarely exceed a few dozen solar masses.

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? Black holes gain mass much the same way we do, by pulling in matter.

In an effort led by MPIA's Bram Venemans, the astronomers targeted the quasar with the millimeter telescope NOEMA, operated by IRAM, in the French Alps and the VLA radio telescope array in Socorro, New Mexico.

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The quasar formed when the universe was just 690 million years old. "Something only started to happen when the first star formed and you got radiation that started to ionize everything". Again, this is a challenge for models, this time for models of galaxy evolution. As the universe rapidly expanded, these particles cooled and coalesced into neutral hydrogen gas during an era that is sometimes referred to as the dark ages - a period bereft of any sources of light.

Reionization, black hole evolution, galaxy evolution - even with these first observations, the newly discovered quasar has given astronomers key information about cosmic history.

The researchers used FIRE to determine that a large fraction of the hydrogen surrounding the quasar is neutral.

"We expected as we looked further back into time that the black holes would be smaller and smaller because they hadn't had as much time to grow", says Rob Simcoe, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the authors of a newly published research paper in Nature.

At a distance of about 13 billion lightyears, the most distant supermassive black hole known so far has been spotted by an worldwide team of astronomers.

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