Astronomers have caught sight of a jet emitted from a very distant supermassive black hole emitted when the Universe was only 2.7 billion years old – a fifth its current age.
They were only able to see it thanks to light from the intensity of the cosmic microwave background radiation, or CMB, left over from the Big Bang, which was much greater than it is today.
“Because we’re seeing this jet when the Universe was less than three billion years old, the jet is about 150 times brighter in X-rays than it would be in the nearby Universe,” said Aurora Simionescu at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency's Institute of Space and Astronautical Studies (ISAS) who led the study, using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.
The jet, found in the system known as B3 0727+409, is at least 300,000 light-years long.
It's is visible thanks to the electrons that fly from the black hole at nearly the speed of light. As they move through CMB radiation, they collide with microwave photons. The photons' energy is boosted up into the X-ray band that can be detected by Chandra.
“We essentially stumbled onto this remarkable jet because it happened to be in Chandra’s field of view while we were observing something else,” said co-author Lukasz Stawarz of Jagiellonian University in Poland.
He said the finding suggested that such X-ray jets could be more common than previously thought.
"If bright X-ray jets can exist with very faint or undetected radio counterparts, it means that there could be many more of them out there because we haven’t been systematically looking for them.”
The phenomenon also might explain more about conditions in the early Universe.
“Supermassive black hole activity, including the launching of jets, may be different in the early Universe than what we see later on,” according to co-author Teddy Cheung of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC.
“By finding and studying more of these distant jets, we can start to grasp how the properties of supermassive black holes might change over billions of years.”
These results were published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.