The most distant quasar ever spotted hails from the universe’s infancy

supermassive black hole

GRAVITATIONAL GUZZLER  The black hole powering the quasar J1342+0928 (illustrated) weighs as much as 800 million suns, but it existed when the universe was just 5 percent of its current age. Scientists aren’t sure how black holes grew so big so early. 

Robin Dienel, courtesy of the Carnegie Institution for Science

The most distant quasar yet spotted sends its light from the universe’s toddler years. The quasar, called J1342+0928, existed when the universe was only 690 million years old, right when the first stars and galaxies were forming.

Quasars are bright disks of gas and dust swirling around supermassive black holes. The black hole that powers J1342+0928 has a mass equivalent to 800 million suns, and it’s gobbling gas and dust so fast that its disk glows as bright as 40 trillion suns, Eduardo Bañados of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena, Calif., and his colleagues report December 6 in Nature.

“The newly discovered quasar gives us a unique photo of the universe when it was 5 percent [of] its present age,” Bañados says. “If the universe was a 50-year-old person, we would be seeing a photo of that person when she/he was 2 1/2 years old.” 

This quasar is only slightly smaller than the previous distance record-holder, which weighs as much as 2 billion suns and whose light is 12.9 billion years old, emitted when the universe was just 770 million years old (SN: 7/30/11, p. 12). Scientists still aren’t sure how supermassive black holes like these grew so big so early.

“They either have to grow faster than we thought, or they started as a bigger baby,” says study coauthor Xiaohui Fan of the Steward Observatory in Tucson.

The temperature of the gas surrounding the newfound quasar places it squarely in the epoch of reionization (SN: 4/1/17, p. 13), when the first stars stripped electrons from atoms of gas that filled interstellar space. That switched the universe’s gas from mostly cold and neutral to hot and ionized. When this particular black hole formed, the universe was about half hot and half cold, Fan says.

“We’re very close to the epoch when the first-generation galaxies are appearing,” Fan says.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on December 11, 2017, to correct the quasar’s luminosity; it is as bright as 40 trillion — not 400 trillion — suns.  

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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