Mysterious black hole discovered at the dawn of the universe

An artist's conception of the most-distant supermassive black hole ever discovered which is part of a quasar from just 690 million years after the Big Bang

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The black hole sits in the center of an ultrabright quasar, the light of which was emitted just 690 million years after the Big Bang.

The quasar's distance is determined by what's called its redshift, a measurement of how much the wavelength of its light is stretched by the expansion of the universe before reaching Earth. It also did this extremely fast, at least by the standards of the universe, which scientists have estimated is 13.8 billion years old.

Black holes are a big mystery.

An artist's illustration shows the most distant supermassive black hole scientists have ever discovered, which grew quickly in the early universe and is part of a quasar. This shift from neutral to ionized hydrogen represented a fundamental change in the universe that has persisted to this day.

But there's a problem with the finding: the black hole appears to be far too big for its age.

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"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", says MIT's Robert Simcoe, co-author of the study. After all, the first stars and galaxies already existed at the time. The results were published today in papers in Nature and Astrophysical Journal Letters. The other lead authors are from the Carnegie Institution for Science, in Pasadena, California. It was made by Eduardo BaƱados, of the Carnegie Institution for Science, using the institution's 6.5 meter Magellan telescopes in Chile, and made use of astronomical survey data such as that NASA's WISE infrared space telescope. 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.

However, black holes that formed in the early universe are different. However, even in our most conservative analysis we find xHI 0.33 (xHI 0.11) at 68 per cent (95 per cent) probability, indicating that we are probing well within the reionization epoch. The higher an object's redshift, the further away it is, both in space and time. Quasar light can be decoded to yield information about the hydrogen atoms the light has encountered along its billion-light-year-journey.

He added: "Gathering all this mass in fewer than 690 million years is an enormous challenge for theories of supermassive black hole growth".

Distant quasars are valuable sources of information about the early universe. "We're used to the idea of the stars being nearly eternal, but there actually was a time before there were any stars, when the universe was dark". Eventually, gravity condensed matter into the first stars and galaxies, which in turn produced light in the form of photons. 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.

Quasar J1342+0928 comes from a time known as the dark ages, where a spontaneous eruption was believed to create the Big Bang. Follow-up observations, as well as a search for similar quasars, are on track to put our picture of early cosmic history onto a solid footing.

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