A team of scientists has discovered the known universe’s most distant supermassive black hole. The black hole is so far from Earth, it has taken over 13 billion years for light from the object to reach our planet. Given the universe’s age of approximately 13.8 billion years, observations of this newly discovered black hole offer scientists a glimpse into a much younger universe. “This is the only object we have observed from this era,” Robert Simcoe, the Francis L. Friedman Professor of Physics in MIT‘s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, told Phys.org. “It has an extremely high mass, and yet the universe is so young that this thing shouldn’t exist. The universe was just not old enough to make a black hole that big. It’s very puzzling.”
Approximately 800 times larger than our sun, the supermassive black hole, also known as a quasar, was first discovered by Eduardo Bañados, an astronomer at Carnegie Institution for Science, while browsing through maps of the distant universe. Bañados was specifically in search of quasars, among the brightest objects in the universe, which are composed of a supermassive black hole orbited by swirling, accumulating matter. “Something is causing gas within the quasar to move around at very high speed, and the only phenomenon we know that achieves such speeds is orbit around a supermassive black hole,” said Simcoe. The research team, which includes scientists from MIT and whose work was published in the journal Nature, used the object’s “redshift,” the phenomenon in which objects farther away emit light that is closer to the infrared end of the light spectrum, to identify its mass and age.
The supermassive black hole seems to have formed at a pivotal time in the universe’s formation. “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 Simcoe. “This is the most accurate measurement of that time, and a real indication of when the first stars turned on.” While the supermassive black hole has offered some insight into the early universe, how such an object formed in those conditions remains a mystery. “If you start with a seed like a big star, and let it grow at the maximum possible rate, and start at the moment of the Big Bang, you could never make something with 800 million solar masses—it’s unrealistic,” said Simcoe. “So there must be another way that it formed. And how exactly that happens, nobody knows.”