Everything about the black hole is unimaginably vast. It has the mass of 12 billion solar masses, emits the energy of 420 trillion Suns, and is at a distance of 12.8 billion light-years from Earth.
By contrast, our own Milky Way galaxy has a black hole which is only four million solar masses at its centre.
The international team which discovered it was led by astronomers from Peking University in China and from the University of Arizona (UA), which explained the significance of the find.
The discovery of this quasar, named SDSS J0100+2802, marks an important step in understanding how quasars, the most powerful objects in the universe, have evolved from the earliest epoch, only 900 million years after the Big Bang, which is thought to have happened 13.7 billion years ago.
But Xiaohui Fan, Regents’ Professor of Astronomy at the UA’s Steward Observatory, said the discovery also presents a major puzzle to the theory of black hole growth at early Universe.
“How can a quasar so luminous, and a black hole so massive, form so early in the history of the Universe, at an era soon after the earliest stars and galaxies have just emerged?” Fan said. “And what is the relationship between this monster black hole and its surrounding environment, including its host galaxy?
“This ultraluminous quasar with its supermassive black hole provides a unique laboratory to the study of the mass assembly and galaxy formation around the most massive black holes in the early universe.”
The quasar dates from a time close to the end of an important cosmic event that astronomers referred to as the “epoch of reionisation” – the dawn that followed the cosmic “dark ages” when gravity began pulling the gas into the first stars and hydrogen was reionised. Scientists are still uncertain as to the cause, which is the subject an international project, Cosmos reported on last year.
Quasars were discovered in 1963 and are the most powerful objects beyond our Milky Way galaxy. They beam vast amounts of energy across space as the supermassive black hole in their centre sucks in matter from its surroundings.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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