Astronomers Find The Most Distant Quasar Ever Discovered, And It’s A Beast

Artist's impression of quasar J0313-1806. NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva

An international team of astronomers has announced the discovery of the furthest quasar yet, and it's a beast. Its light is coming to us from just 670 million years after the Big Bang. Its luminosity is 1,000 times brighter than our entire galaxy and it's powered by a gargantuan supermassive black hole 1.6 billion times more massive than our Sun.

The detection of the quasar J0313-1806, reported in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, comes just three years after the previous record-holder, ULAS J1342+0928, and continues to challenge our understanding of how galaxies and their supermassive black holes form.

"This is the earliest evidence of how a supermassive black hole is affecting the galaxy around it," lead author Dr Feige Wang, from the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory, said in a statement. "From observations of less distant galaxies, we know that this has to happen, but we have never seen it happening so early in the universe."

Quasars are some of the most distant and luminous objects known. They are extremely active astronomical objects found at the center of some galaxies, powered by black holes millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun.

The size of the supermassive black hole of this new record-breaker is absolutely ludicrous. To give you an idea, it is 385 times heavier than the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, and twice as massive as the previous record-holder. The team believes that the fact this massive black hole grew so quickly in such a relatively short amount of time rules out some of the theoretical scenarios for how black holes form.

One hypothesis sees the very first stars (which are expected to be hundreds, if not thousands, of times the mass of the Sun) going supernova very quickly, leaving behind massive black holes. These eventually merge into supermassive black holes. Another scenario sees the merging of these massive stars as the seed of these supermassive black holes. The team says the processes for both of these take too long to produce a supermassive black hole as big as the one at the core of J1342+0928.

"This tells you that no matter what you do, the seed of this black hole must have formed by a different mechanism," co-author Xiaohui Fan, also of the University of Arizona, said. "In this case, it's a mechanism that involves vast quantities of primordial, cold hydrogen gas directly collapsing into a seed black hole."

The galaxy is also intensely growing. The team estimated that it produced 200 stars as massive as the Sun per year, roughly 200 times the rate our galaxy makes stars. But this growth will not go on forever. The supermassive black hole eats 25 Suns per year and has seen throwing gas out of the galaxy at 20 percent of the speed of light. Eventually, the galaxy won’t have enough gas to make new stars and its activity will grind to a halt.

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