Astronomers Discover Most Massive Quasar Known In The Early Universe

An artist’s impression of the quasar Pōniuāʻena.  International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/P. Marenfeld

An international team of researchers has discovered the second most distant quasar. The light that we are receiving today was emitted just 700 million years after the Big Bang, truly at the dawn of the age of galaxies.

A quasar is a particularly active phase of a supermassive black hole at the core of a galaxy. It is feeding at an incredible rhythm. Gas in the galaxy is rushing towards the black hole and this produces a stupendous amount of energy, which allows quasars to outshine their host galaxies.

The new quasar is called Pōniuāʻena, a name that translates to “unseen spinning source of creation, surrounded with brilliance” in the Hawaiian language. It's not just in the book of records for its distance, but also for the size of its black hole, estimated to be 1.5 billion times the mass of the Sun. The discovery has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and is available as a preprint on the e-print site arXiv.org.

“Pōniuāʻena is the most distant object known in the universe hosting a black hole exceeding 1 billion solar masses,” lead author Dr Jinyi Yang, from the Steward Observatory of the University of Arizona, said in a statement.

This size is not just difficult to picture in general, it is also difficult to square with our models of the universe. To have such a large black hole at that point in the early universe, there have to be some very specific requirements. The black hole that powers Pōniuāʻena should have started as a “seed” black hole 10,000 times the mass of the Sun, 100 million years after the Big Bang. The issue here is that the growth of black holes is believed to have started much later.

“How can the universe produce such a massive black hole so early in its history?” said Xiaohui Fan, Regents’ professor and associate department head of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Arizona. “This discovery presents the biggest challenge yet for the theory of black hole formation and growth in the early universe.”

While Pōniuāʻena is certainly an outlier, it highlights the still large gap in knowledge when it comes to the early universe. Upcoming observatories such as the Extremely Large Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope will be able to look further back into the universe and see more of what the cosmos was like in its infancy.

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