Mysterious black hole discovered at the dawn of the universe

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"Gathering all this mass in fewer than 690 million years is an enormous challenge for theories of supermassive black hole growth", says Eduardo Bañados from the Carnegie Institute for Science, who led the team of astronomers that made the discovery.

Much of the hydrogen surrounding the newly discovered quasar is neutral, meaning that it is the most distant quasar, the study said. 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. But even more exciting than the black hole itself is the luminous disk of gas orbiting it-combined, the black hole and gas disk form a system called a quasar, and this one is shedding new light on the early cosmos. In black holes, gravity has such a strong pull that not even light can escape. That mass is not unusual for supermassive black holes, but it is hard to explain - using current black hole formation theories - how it came together at such an early time in the universe's history.

Scientists predict the sky contains between 20 and 100 quasars as bright and as distant as this quasar.

"This object provides us with a measurement of the time at which the universe first became illuminated with starlight", said another of the researchers, physics professor Robert Simcoe of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. This means that, in looking at this object, we are looking at the universe as it was just hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang. And how did those behemoth black holes grow so big in so little time?

Astronomers spotted the black hole, the most distant ever found, sitting inside a bright object so far away that the light had been traveling for 13 billion years before reaching Earth.

The results described here were published as Bañados et al., "An 800 million solar mass black hole in a significantly neutral universe at redshift 7.5" in the journal Nature, and as Venemans et al., "Copious amounts of dust and gas in a z=7.5 quasar host galaxy" in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. "With several next-generation, even-more-sensitive facilities now being built, we can expect many exciting discoveries in the very early universe in the coming years". "It has an extremely high mass, and yet the universe is so young that this thing shouldn't exist". After all, the first stars and galaxies already existed at the time. As stars and galaxies began to fire up and release energy, the photons they emitted ionized the neutral hydrogen gas that previously filled the universe, marking a fundamental turning point in history. 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. Immediately following the Big Bang, the universe resembled a cosmic soup of hot, extremely energetic particles. It dates back to 690 million years after the Big Bang.

An artist's impression of the supermassive black hole.

Astronomers have at least two gnawing questions about the first billion years of the universe, an era steeped in literal fog and figurative mystery.

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