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Astronomers Find the Earliest Supermassive Black Hole Ever Discovered

07 December 2017

The black hole was detected by Eduardo Bañados of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who was scouring surveys of the sky to look for ancient objects like this one.

It's a truly gargantuan black hole, some 800 million times the mass of our sun. As more giant telescopes are constructed, we'll be able to locate more of these objects, but this specific supermassive black hole gives us unique insight into the state of the early universe, as it existed shortly after the Big Bang.

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. This is the most distant quasar-a supermassive black hole surrounded by a disk of gas-ever identified and it will help astronomers to better understand exactly how black holes grew when the universe was first forming.

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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.

Another study author, Robert Simcoe of MIT, said "this is the only object we have observed from this era".

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.

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But there's a problem with the finding: the black hole appears to be far too big for its age. Then, the neutral hydrogen was ionized by the first quasars, which are supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies. The light of the newly discovered most distant quasar yet carries crucial information regarding one of the earliest phases of the universe, the so-called reionization phase. Redshift refers to the lengthening of the wavelength of light from an object, caused by the Doppler effect as the universe expands.

"What we have found is that the universe was about 50/50 - it's a moment when the first galaxies emerged from their cocoons of neutral gas and started to shine their way out", Simcoe says. It also did this extremely fast, at least by the standards of the universe, which scientists have estimated is 13.8 billion years old. These can not, in theory, have formed from the collapse of massive stars because the timescales don't match-there would not have been enough time for a start to be born, live and die for it to exist. As stars and galaxies began to fire up and release energy, the photons they emitted ionized the neutral hydrogen gas that previously filled the universe, marking a fundamental turning point in history. It dates back to 690 million years after the Big Bang. It's thought that black holes grow by accreting, or absorbing mass from the surrounding environment.

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? By way of comparison, Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. After the energetic particles from the Big Bang cooled, they formed neutral hydrogen.

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Astronomers Find the Earliest Supermassive Black Hole Ever Discovered