Astronomers have discovered an ultraluminous quasar with a supermassive black hole from the early universe, just 900 million years after the Big Bang. The black hole has a mass that’s about 12 billion times that of our sun, the biggest ever observed from that time, according to the study published in Nature this week.
Supermassive black holes—like the one in the center of our galaxy—get bigger by accumulating material from around them into an accretion disc, releasing energy that we see as bright objects called quasars. A large international team led by Xue-Bing Wu of Peking University carried out a survey of these sorts of distant, luminous objects using data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the two Micron All Sky Survey, and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer.
They found a crazy bright quasar with an impossibly large black hole—made all the more unusual by the fact that this occurred so early in history of our universe. The quasar, named SDSS J0100+2802 (below), is 420 trillion times more luminous than the sun and seven times brighter than the most distant quasar known. “Just like the brightest lighthouse in the distant universe, its glowing light will help us to probe more about the early universe,” Wu says in a news release. It was found at a redshift of z=6.30 and a distance of 12.8 billion light-years from Earth. The higher redshift, the further back in time: So far, we only know of 40 quasars with a redshift higher than 6, which marks the beginning of the early universe.
Galaxies and their supermassive black holes are thought to have formed together in the early universe. For this newly discovered black hole to have grown that rapidly in such a (relatively) short amount of time—and without merging with other black holes—goes against our current theories of black hole growth during those earliest of days. "This quasar is a unique laboratory to study the way that a quasar's black hole and host galaxy co-evolve," says study co-author Yuri Beletsky of the Carnegie Institution. "Our findings indicate that in the early universe, quasar black holes probably grew faster than their host galaxies, although more research is needed to confirm this idea."
Images: Zhaoyu Li/Shanghai Astronomical Observatory (top, bottom), Yunnan Observatories (background for bottom image)