Baptized J0313-1806, the quasar, as we see it, is from a time when the universe was only 670 million years old, about 5% of its current age. At such a distance, J0313-1806 becomes the record holder for the earliest black hole to reign, J1342 + 0928, which was discovered in 2017 and existed when the universe was only 690 million years old.
The discovery, announced at the 237th meeting of the American Astronomical Society on Tuesday, helps shed light on the environment of the ancient universe. But like any good astrophysics story, it leaves scientists with a series of confusing questions.
Quasars are extremely bright objects – the brightest in the universe. They are located in the center of galaxies, but in their own center is a supermassive black hole, millions to billions of times more massive than the sun. The intense gravity surrounding the black hole traps gas and dust and potentially even tears stars apart, leaving a trail of dirt in a disk surrounding it. The waste whips around at incredible speed, expelling extreme amounts of energy that observers on Earth can see across the electromagnetic spectrum as bright light.
And it is bright.
J0313-1806, for example, shines 1,000 times brighter than the entire Milky Way galaxy.
Astronomers were able to spot the quasar using a handful of terrestrial observatories, including the Atacama Large Millimeter / Submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the world’s largest radio telescope, and two observatories at Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The observations allowed researchers to confirm the distance with high precision and examine some of the properties of the supermassive black hole in the center of the quasar.
Their calculations put the mass of the black hole at about 1.6 billion times that of the sun. But this poses a problem. Because the black hole cannot be older than 670 million years, traditional theories about black hole growth cannot account for its size in such a short time. Our current understanding of black hole formation implies that stars are collapsing into themselves, but scientists say this would not be able to explain why J0313-1806’s black hole is so large.
“For the black hole to grow to the size we see with J0313-1806, it would have started with a black hole of at least 10,000 solar masses,” said Xiaohui Fan, an astronomer at the University of Arizona and co-author of an upcoming paper describing the find. “It would only be possible in the scenario of direct collapse.”
This scenario suggests that it is not one star which collapses in a black hole, but instead large amounts of cold hydrogen gas in a cloud. The theory of direct collapse is one of the ways to explain why astronomers find such massive black holes in the early universe, but it is not the only important finding for the team.
Using spectral data, the team also speculates that the supermassive black hole fills up the equivalent of 25 suns each year – meaning it is still growing. “These quasars are probably still in the process of building their supermassive black holes,” Fan said.
The James Webb Space Telescope, which is expected to launch on October 31, could help give scientists another window into the early universe and reveal what these supermassive animals are going to be like.
The work has been accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
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Update: Clarification of the age of the black hole in relation to the universe. An earlier version of this article said that the black hole is only 670 million years old.