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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. 

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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.  

Astronomy,, Planetary Science

Dawn spacecraft will keep orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres indefinitely

By Lisa Grossman 3:15pm, October 20, 2017
NASA just gave the Dawn spacecraft a second mission extension to orbit Ceres indefinitely.

Measured distance within the Milky Way gives clues to what our galaxy looks like

By Lisa Grossman 2:45pm, October 12, 2017
Astronomers used an old but challenging technique to directly measure the distance to a star on the opposite side of the galaxy for the first time.
Animals,, Oceans,, Conservation

New deep-sea sponge could play a starring role in monitoring ocean health

By Carolyn Gramling 7:00am, October 10, 2017
A new species of sponge that dwells on metal-rich rocks could help scientists track the environmental impact of deep-sea mining.
Animals,, Paleontology

Ancient whale turns up on wrong side of the world

By Laurel Hamers 12:00pm, October 9, 2017
A Southern Hemisphere whale species was briefly a northern resident.
Chemistry,, Technology

Cool way to peer into molecules’ inner workings wins chemistry Nobel Prize

By Laurel Hamers 8:04am, October 4, 2017
Three scientists will split the prize for their work developing cryo-electron microscopy.
Paleontology,, Animals

A baby ichthyosaur’s last meal revealed

By Helen Thompson 2:00am, October 3, 2017
A new look at an old fossil shows that some species of baby ichthyosaurs may have dined on squid.
Physiology,, Biomedicine

Body clock mechanics wins U.S. trio the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine

By Tina Hesman Saey 6:41am, October 2, 2017
The cellular mechanisms governing circadian rhythms was a Nobel Prize‒winning discover for three Americans.

Bedbugs may be into dirty laundry

By Helen Thompson 9:00am, September 28, 2017
When humans aren’t around, bedbugs go for the next best thing: smelly human laundry.

Saber-toothed kittens were born armed to pounce

By Carolyn Gramling 2:00pm, September 27, 2017
Even as babies, saber-toothed cats had not only oversized canine teeth but also unusually powerful forelimbs.
Paleontology,, Animals

This giant marsupial was a seasonal migrant

By Laurel Hamers 7:05pm, September 26, 2017
The giant, extinct marsupial Diprotodon optatum migrated seasonally, the first marsupial shown to do so.
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