Massive black hole reveals when the first stars blinked on


Bañados and colleagues explored another possibility: If you start at the new black hole's current mass and rewind the tape, sucking away matter at the Eddington rate until you approach the Big Bang, you see it must have initially formed as an object heavier than 1,000 times the mass of the sun.

Venemans Bram of the Max Planck Institute and an author on the paper says it's likely the early universe favored the formation of massive, unstable stars that exploded after a few million years, producing metals more rapidly than our present universe.

The object was examined using ground-based telescopes in Chile and Hawaii and NASA's orbiting Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. By comparison, Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of our Milky Way galaxy, which is thought to have formed about 13.7 billion years ago, is only 4 million times the mass of the Sun.

"The newfound quasar is so luminous and evolved that I would be surprised if this was the first quasar ever formed", Banados said. Analysis of this object reveals that reionization, the process that defogged the universe like a hair dryer on a steamy bathroom mirror, was about half complete at that time.

Quasars are incredibly bright objects deep in the cosmos, powered by black holes devouring everything around them.

But, the black holes which formed during the universe's "early days" are different because, in theory, they couldn't have formed from the collapse of a huge star as the timelines don't match, as there was not enough time for the star to be born and live long enough to collapse to become a black hole.

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"This adds to our understanding of our universe at large because we've identified that moment of time when the universe is in the middle of this very rapid transition from neutral to ionized", Simcoe says.

It's the farthest black hole ever found.

It has been challenging for the scientists to explain how black holes gobbled up enough matter to reach supermassive sizes early in the history. This classifies it as a quasar, and it's largely what allowed astronomers to discover it.

"We're talking 690 million years" after the Big Bang, said Gemini spokesman Peter Michaud. Again, this is a challenge for models, this time for models of galaxy evolution. That indicated to researchers that the stars were just beginning to glow, he said.

The unexpected discovery relied on data collected from observatories around the world. "They're rare, but they're very much there, and we need to figure out how they form", said Priyamvada Natarajan, an astrophysicist at Yale University who was not part of the research team.

Quasars, energized by gases spiraling at high speeds into an enormous black hole, are known to inhabit the center of certain galaxies, sometimes outshining all the stars in those galaxies. That's far bigger than any we know today.