Super big black hole from early universe farthest ever found

Alan Olson
December 8, 2017

Our understandings of the formation and beginnings of the universe suggest that a black hole with such a huge mass shouldn't actually have been able to form, scientists say. The team thinks that, perhaps, the conditions in the very early universe allowed for massive black holes to form, that started off at 100,000 times more massive than the Sun and then grew from there. Astronomers have found a quasar - an active supermassive black hole - that is so distant, and thus so far back in time, that it challenges their models of how these gargantuan objects form.

The researcher Eduardo Banados of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who led the research published in the journal Nature said that so if the universe was a 50-year-old person, we are seeing a picture of that character when he or she was 2-1/2 years old.

When the black hole formed more than 13 billion years ago, the universe was about half ionized and half neutral, Simcoe said. Most are dormant, and thus are only "seen" by how their vast gravity affects the objects around them.

"We're talking 690 million years" after the Big Bang, said Gemini spokesman Peter Michaud.

To make things even more interesting, this appears to be a supermassive black hole - the most massive known objects in the universe, the likes of which are thought to lie at the center of all galaxies. Quasars consist of a supermassive black hole and the swirling bits of matter it absorbs.

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Much bigger black holes are out there, but none so far away - at least among those found so far.

Even earlier in the early universe, before any stars or black holes existed, the chaotic scramble of naked protons and electrons came together to make hydrogen atoms. It is the most distant black hole ever discovered.

"This is the only object we have observed from this era", said Robert Simcoe, the Francis L. Friedman professor of physics at MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. But the universe remained dark, without any luminous sources until the gravity created the first stars and galaxies that corresponds to our period. That helped scientists estimate that the stars turned on roughly when it began its journey - about 696 million years after the big bang. It's part of a long-term search for the earliest quasars, which will continue.

"Something is causing gas within the quasar to move around at very high speed, and the only phenomenon we know that achieves such speeds is orbit around a supermassive black hole", Simcoe says. Although the galaxy can be no more than 690 million years old, it has already formed an enormous amount of dust, and heavy chemical elements. That means that the black hole quasar was formed exactly during that reionization phase after the Big Bang event. In this approach, collapsing clouds in the early universe gave birth to overgrown baby black holes that weighed thousands or tens of thousands of solar masses.

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