Farthest-ever supermassive black hole reveals the early universe

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That, of course, gives us its age: the light took 13 billion years to reach our telescopes.

Finding such a large black hole existing so early in the universe's history surprised the researchers.

"This is the only object we have observed from this era", says Robert Simcoe, the Francis L. Friedman Professor of Physics in MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. "It has an extremely high mass, and yet the universe is so young that this thing shouldn't exist".

The quasar that made its way to Earth from the black hole began its life at that very important part of the history of the universe. This is the most distant quasar-a supermassive black hole surrounded by a disk of gas-ever identified and it will help astronomers to better understand exactly how black holes grew when the universe was first forming. It's especially interesting because the bulk of the hydrogen in the quasar appears to be neutral, rather than ionized. This shift from neutral to ionized hydrogen represented a fundamental change in the universe that has persisted to this day. They become supermassive by merging with other black holes and devouring other stars.

"The moment when the first stars turned on is when our universe filled with light", says Simcoe, who explains that when this light leaked out of the first galaxies, it interacted with the surrounding matter and changed its properties. As more stars formed from the remains of first-generation stars, they became "polluted" with heavier elements and in turn produce even heavier elements when they explode in supernovae.

The science journal Nature this week reports the discovery of a quasar - the brightest objects in space.

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Banados and his team used the Carnegie's Magellan telescopes in Chile, supported by observatories in Hawaii, the American Southwest and the French Alps. 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. "The universe is enormous and searching for these very rare objects is like looking for the needle in the haystack".

Artist's conception of the discovery of the most-distant quasar known. This newly discovered quasar has a redshift of 7.54, based on the detection of ionized carbon emissions from the galaxy that hosts the massive black hole.

He said he suspects that despite its precocious youth, J1342+0928 eventually settled down to life at a more measured pace, becoming a more typical supermassive black hole at the center of a large elliptical galaxy.

The Big Bang started the universe as a hot, murky soup of extremely energetic particles that was rapidly expanding. The galaxy, for its age and time period, is far more rich in metals than it should be, considering the first generation of stars were comprised nearly entirely of hydrogen and helium. Yet this scenario requires exceptional conditions that would have allowed gas clouds to condense all together into a single object instead of splintering into many stars, as is typically the case. It dates back to 690 million years after the Big Bang. This means that the early universe likely was conducive to the quick formation of supermassive black holes; our current universe isn't, and black holes are generally much smaller.

And the existence of early black holes has been predicted to be a key telltale as to whether or not the idea may be valid. By way of comparison, Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.