Scientists have just discovered a supermassive black hole that existed surprisingly early in the history of the universe, and the puzzling find is shedding new light on when the first stars blinked on. In effect, the light shows that quasar as it was 13 billion years ago, a mere 690 million years after the Big Bang.
That means it took more than 13 billion years for the light from the quasar to reach us, a time when our universe was still quite young. "And it greatly confused us", says MIT Professor of physics Robert Simcoe.
Before, scientists thought that if there were black holes that formed soon after the Big Bang, there would need to be certain conditions which would allow the supermassive black hole to be born. This shift from neutral to ionized hydrogen represented a fundamental change in the universe that has persisted to this day.
It's the farthest black hole ever found. 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. For instance, at nearly a billion solar masses, the quasar's central black hole is comparatively massive.
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Quasars are incredibly bright objects deep in the cosmos, powered by black holes devouring everything around them. FIRE is a spectrometer that classifies objects based on their infrared spectra. "The universe is enormous and searching for these very rare objects is like looking for the needle in the haystack". Most are dormant, and thus are only "seen" by how their huge gravity affects the objects around them. The higher an object's redshift, the further away it is, both in space and time. But what's of particular note is its mass, which the Gemini telescope atop Maunakea confirmed is 800 million times that of our sun.
"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. During its early stage, the universe went through what is sometimes called the Dark Age - not a metaphor, as it is for the human period, but a truly a dark age as there was no light. Approximately 400,000 years after the Big Bang, these particles cooled and merged into neutral hydrogen gas. In this approach, collapsing clouds in the early universe gave birth to overgrown baby black holes that weighed thousands or tens of thousands of solar masses. From this, they inferred that stars must have begun turning on during this time, 690 million years after the Big Bang.
"This discovery opens up an exciting new window to understand the early universe", he said in an email from Pasadena, California. "We now have the most accurate measurements to date of when the first stars were turning on". Finding the quasar was a part of a similar project which included searching the most distant supermassive black holes.
For scientists 2017 is the most fruitful year. That indicated to researchers that the stars were just beginning to glow, he said.