It was made by Eduardo Bañados, of the Carnegie Institution for Science, using the institution's 6.5 meter Magellan telescopes in Chile, and made use of astronomical survey data such as that NASA's WISE infrared space telescope. "Gathering all this mass in fewer than 690 million years is an enormous challenge for theories of supermassive black hole growth".
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. When you think of a black hole, you're likely thinking of a stellar black hole, which forms when a star explodes in a spectacular supernova, and the remaining core collapses under the weight of its own gravity. 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.
Artist's conception of the discovery of the most-distant quasar known.
"This is the only object we have observed from this era", says Simcoe.
The thing is a deep-space enigma: researchers are baffled how a black hole could have gotten so massive within several hundred million years of the Big Bang.
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Scientists were surprised by the black hole's tremendous mass, 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. "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". 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. Redshift refers to the lengthening of the wavelength of light from an object, caused by the Doppler effect as the universe expands.
This also happened right around a major moment in the universe, called the reionization, essentially where hydrogen stopped messing around and became the reactive element we know and love today.
"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. After all, the first stars and galaxies already existed at the time.
The researchers used FIRE to determine that a large fraction of the hydrogen surrounding the quasar is neutral. It dates back to 690 million years after the Big Bang. Explaining how such a massive black hole could have formed in such a comparatively short amount of available time is a challenge for models of supermassive black hole formation, and effectively rules out some of those models. By way of comparison, Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. 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.