Farthest-ever supermassive black hole reveals the early universe

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They are amazed to discover so massive a black hole so early in cosmic history, which challenges our understanding of the early growth of supermassive black holes and their host galaxies.

Prior to this discovery, the record-holder for the furthest known quasar existed when the Universe was about 800 million years old.

"The new quasar is itself one of the first galaxies, and yet it already harbors a behemoth black hole as massive as others in the present-day universe", co-author Xiaohui Fan of the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory said in a statement. It's especially interesting because the bulk of the hydrogen in the quasar appears to be neutral, rather than ionized. This shift from neutral to ionized hydrogen represented a fundamental change in the universe that has persisted to this day.

"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 Professor Simcoe. "This is the most accurate measurement of that time, and a real indication of when the first stars turned on".

The find is described in the journal Nature.

The Carnegie Institution for Science is a private, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., with six research departments throughout the U.S. Since its founding in 1902, the Carnegie Institution has been a pioneering force in basic scientific research.

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"This object gives us a picture of how the universe was when it was only five percent of its present age", Bañados says. FIRE is a spectrometer that classifies objects based on their infrared spectra. It dates back to 690 million years after the Big Bang.

According to MIT, black holes grow into supermassive voids as mass slowly accumulates, and this specific black hole should have taken more than 690 million years to come together.

The further astronomers look with more powerful telescopes, the fewer quasars - galactic centers hosting black holes - they see."We know we are pushing the limit", he said. As the universe expanded in size, those particles cooled down, and as they did they formed into a neutral hydrogen gas during which it was completely dark. Eventually gravity condensed matter and the first few stars and galaxies were born. Once the universe became reionized, photons could travel freely throughout space, thus the universe became transparent to light.

Artist's conception of the discovery of the most-distant quasar known. The higher the redshift, the greater the distance, and the further back astronomers are looking in time when they observe the object. From this, they inferred that stars must have begun turning on during this time, 690 million years after the Big Bang.

"This is a very exciting discovery", he said. This means that the early universe likely was conducive to the quick formation of supermassive black holes; our current universe isn't, and black holes are generally much smaller. "So there must be another way that it formed".

No one's sure exactly how those processes might happen, but researchers plan to look for more, similar deep-space objects to test their theories.