Lurking in a remote area of space, more than 13 billion light-years away, is a luminous ““powered by a 1.6 billion times more massive than the sun. Astronomers recently saw the galactic beast and marked the oldest of its kind.
The old, defined as a bright, massive, distant active galactic nucleus that emits enormous amounts of energy, has been named J0313-1806 by an international team led by researchers at the University of Arizona. It dates back to an astonishing 670 million years after the Big Bang ̵
That makes it the most distant – meaning the earliest – known quasar. The former record-breaking quasar was also recently discovered in 2017.
J0313-1806 is only 20 million light-years further away than its predecessor, but itsis twice as heavy – challenging known theories about the formation of black holes in the early universe.
The team presented its findings, which will be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, at the virtual 237th meeting of the American Astronomical Society this week.
“This is the earliest evidence of how a supermassive black hole affects its host galaxy around it,” lead author Feige Wang said in a statement. “From observations of smaller distant galaxies, we know this is going to happen, but we’ve never seen it happen so early in the universe.”
Scientists believe that supermassive black holes swallow a huge amount of matter, such as gas or stars, to form an accretion disk that swirls around itself – creating a quasar. These objects are the brightest in the cosmos because of this enormous amount of energy.
The celestial object is also the first of its kind to present evidence of an outpouring of hot, gaseous wind from its black hole at one-fifth the speed of light – a surprising discovery.
The formation of the quasar, however, remains a bit of a mystery.
Black holes typically form when a star explodes, dies and collapses, and supermassive black holes grow when black holes fuse over time. However, quasars in the early universe are far too young to have become so enormous, so fast, in this way.
The supermassive black hole in the center of J0313-1806 is so large – still growing as it occupies the mass equivalent of approx. 25 suns each year – this cannot be explained by a number of previous hypotheses.
“This tells you that no matter what you do, the seed for this black hole must be formed by a different mechanism,” said co-author Xiaohui Fan. “In this case one that involves large amounts of clock, cold hydrogen gas that directly collapses into a black black hole.”
In this scenario, instead of a star being responsible instead of a star collapsing in a black hole.
When quasars blow up their surroundings, they remove much of the cold gas needed for stars to form. Because of this, scientists believe that supermassive black holes in the center of galaxies may be the reason why galaxies cease to form new stars.
“We think these supermassive black holes were the reason many of the large galaxies stopped forming stars at some point,” Fan said. “We observe this ‘extinction’ at lower redshifts, but until now we did not know how early this process began in the history of the universe. This quasar is the earliest evidence that extinction may have taken place very early.”
J0313-1806 pumps out 200 solar masses a year. For comparison isforming stars at a “relaxed pace” of about one solar mass each year.
“This is a relatively high rate of star formation similar to that observed in other quasars of the same age, and it tells us that the host galaxy is growing very fast,” Wang said.
“These quasars are probably still building their supermassive black holes,” Fan added. “Over time, the outflow of the quasars heats up and pushes all the gas out of the galaxy, and then the black hole has nothing left to eat anymore and stops growing. This is proof of how these earliest massive galaxies and their quasars are growing.”
The quasar provides a rare insight into galaxy formation at the beginning of the universe, but scientists need a more powerful telescope to investigate it further. NASAs, which is expected to be launched this year, will allow for a more detailed study.
“With terrestrial telescopes, we can only see one point source,” Wang said. “Future observations could make it possible to solve the quasar in more detail, show the structure of its outflow and how far the wind extends into its galaxy, and that would give us a much better idea of its evolutionary phase.”