Massive black hole reveals when the first stars blinked on


"Gathering all this mass in fewer than 690 million years is an enormous challenge for theories of supermassive black hole growth", says Eduardo Bañados from the Carnegie Institute for Science, who led the team of astronomers that made the discovery. As mass falls into the black hole, it forms an accretion disk around the black hole and jets of matter that spew from the black hole.

Even earlier in the early universe, before any stars or black holes existed, the chaotic scramble of naked protons and electrons came together to make hydrogen atoms. That mass is not unusual for supermassive black holes, but it is hard to explain - using current black hole formation theories - how it came together at such an early time in the universe's history.

At a distance of about 13 billion lightyears, the most distant supermassive black hole known so far has been spotted by an global team of astronomers.

"This is the only object we have observed from this era", says Simcoe.

Boffins believe that the central mass of the black hole existed when our universe was only 5% of its current age.

Astronomers on Wednesday said the black hole, residing at the center of a highly luminous celestial object called a quasar, is located about 13.1 billion light years away from Earth.

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Quasars are supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies that actively consume gas and dust.

The higher the redshift, the greater the distance, and the farther back astronomers are looking in time when they observe the object. It also did this extremely fast, at least by the standards of the universe, which scientists have estimated is 13.8 billion years old. "With several next-generation, even-more-sensitive facilities now being built, we can expect many exciting discoveries in the very early universe in the coming years". It's especially interesting because the bulk of the hydrogen in the quasar appears to be neutral, rather than ionized.

"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", said Professor Simcoe. This is also around when elements on the periodic table, like hydrogen and helium, began to form. These can not, in theory, have formed from the collapse of massive stars because the timescales don't match-there would not have been enough time for a start to be born, live and die for it to exist.

After analyzing the quasar, the scientists found a lot of the hydrogen surrounding it is neutral, which suggests that the supermassive black hole formed during the reionization phase after the Big Bang.

An artist's impression of the supermassive black hole. From this, they inferred that stars must have begun turning on during this time, 690 million years after the Big Bang. 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. Extremely large black holes, such as the one identified by Simcoe and his colleagues, should form over periods much longer than 690 million years.