Farthest-ever supermassive black hole reveals the early universe

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The light from this quasar was emitted 690 million years after the Big Bang, relatively close to the beginning of everything.

The mass of the black hole is 800 million times that of the sun, the university said, and it sits in the center of a galactic object called a quasar. But in the early universe, astronomers believe conditions were more favorable to the growth of supermassive black holes.

"This is the only object we have observed from this era", says Robert Simcoe, the Francis L. Friedman Professor of Physics in MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

"Here we see this thing that's very bright coming from very early in the universe", Simcoe said.

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Scientists can now estimate when stars first began to light up the cosmic universe, thanks to the discovery of a supermassive black hole, NPR reports.

The newly discovered quasar adds a crucial data point: Its light shows that a significant fraction of hydrogen was still neutral 690 million years after the Big Bang. This shift from neutral to ionized hydrogen represented a fundamental change in the universe that has persisted to this day. So this black hole may also hold a few keys to that mystery.

"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. "This is the most accurate measurement of that time, and a real indication of when the first stars turned on". The other lead authors are from the Carnegie Institution for Science, in Pasadena, California. Matter such as gas falling onto the black hole will form an ultra-hot accretion disk before falling in, making the whole setup one of the most luminous objects in the universe: a quasar. The higher an object's redshift, the further away it is, both in space and time. Quasar light can be decoded to yield information about the hydrogen atoms the light has encountered along its billion-light-year-journey. 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. One scientist compared the team's discovery to finding a needle in a haystack - a very large and old haystack.

The newly identified quasar appears to inhabit a pivotal moment in the universe's history.

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When the matter falls into the black hole, it heats up and allows the quasar to emit light, Simcoe said. Once the universe became reionized, photons could travel freely throughout space, thus the universe became transparent to light.

"This object gives us a picture of how the universe was when it was only five percent of its present age", Bañados says. For one, they can be used to "X-ray" the universe over large distances.

"We have already secured observations for this object with a number of the most powerful telescopes in the world". As more stars formed from the remains of first-generation stars, they became "polluted" with heavier elements and in turn produce even heavier elements when they explode in supernovae. 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.

It's the farthest black hole ever found. "Something only started to happen when the first star formed and you got radiation that started to ionize everything".

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