Earliest Black Hole Gives Rare Glimpse of Ancient Universe

Earliest Black Hole Gives Rare Glimpse of Ancient Universe

"The number of quasars as luminous and as distant as we've just found ... there should be between 20 and 100 over the entire sky", Eduardo Bañados of Carnegie and lead author of the study says. And it is so far away that we are seeing something that formed when the universe was only five per cent of its current age - something that scientists say shouldn't be able to happen.

The astronomer who found the unusual black hole said that there's no way of explaining how a black hole would be able to pick up such mass, and that it might challenge out current understandings of how black holes form.

However, black holes that formed in the early universe are different. They are regions of space where gravity is so strong that nothing-not even light-can escape.

That dates it to a time when the first stars started to light up the inky blackness of the early universe.

"This object provides us with a measurement of the time at which the universe first became illuminated with starlight", said another of the researchers, physics professor Robert Simcoe of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

The most fundamental mystery is just what this black hole "ate" to become so huge.

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Quasars are powered by supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies - in this case, a black hole with nearly a billion times the mass of the Sun. This black hole was seen devouring material at the center of a galaxy.

He added: "Gathering all this mass in fewer than 690 million years is an enormous challenge for theories of supermassive black hole growth". Astronomers have only ever discovered one object of comparable size in this era of the early universe. It's especially interesting because the bulk of the hydrogen in the quasar appears to be neutral, rather than ionized. After hundreds of millions of years, young stars or quasars emitted enough light to strip the electrons back off these atoms, dissipating the cosmic fog like mist at dawn.

"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", Simcoe says. This is also around when elements on the periodic table, like hydrogen and helium, began to form. It also did this extremely fast, at least by the standards of the universe, which scientists have estimated is 13.8 billion years old.

The researchers used FIRE to determine that a large fraction of the hydrogen surrounding the quasar is neutral. That helped scientists estimate that the stars turned on roughly when it began its journey - about 696 million years after the big bang. "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.

An artist's impression of the supermassive black hole.

Fan hopes that more extensive searching will reveal even earlier black holes and the formation of first-generation galaxies. Extremely large black holes, such as the one identified by Simcoe and his colleagues, should form over periods much longer than 690 million years.

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