ESO / M. Kornmesser
This artist's impression shows how ULAS J1120+0641, a quasar powered by a black hole with a mass 2 billion times that of the sun, may have looked. It is the most distant yet found and is also the brightest object yet discovered in the early universe.
By
updated 6/29/2011 3:03:02 PM ET 2011-06-29T19:03:02

Scientists have discovered the most brilliant object yet from the infancy of the cosmos, a super-bright galaxy that challenges notions of how extraordinarily massive black holes evolved.

The brilliant enigma is a quasar, a stage that some galaxies go through when lots of material falls into the supermassive black holes at their cores, giving off light as it does so.

The quasar, assigned the name ULAS J1120+0641, is the most distant one found to date. It is by far the brightest object discovered from the early universe, giving off 60 trillion times as much light as our sun. (A trillion is 1 million millions.)

To discover this quasar, scientists hunted through 20 million objects detected over the course of five years in the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope Deep Sky Survey.

ESO / UKIDSS / SDSS
This image the ULAS J1120+0641 quasar was created from images taken from surveys made by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey. It appears as a faint red dot near the center.

"The search was very long and slow — kind of like panning for gold and seeing lots of shiny things glinting in the pan, only for most of them to be old nails, until finally one candidate turned out to be what we were looking for," said researcher Daniel Mortlock, an astrophysicist at Imperial College London.

Most distant quasar yet
The distance to the quasar was then determined from observations made with the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope and the Gemini North Telescope. Based on how greatly the light from the quasar was stretched during its journey by the expansion of the universe, the scientists estimate the quasar existed only 770 million years after the Big Bang.

By analyzing the light from ULAS J1120+0641, researchers estimate the quasar was powered by a black hole 2 billion times the mass of the sun. How black holes became so massive so soon after the Big Bang is difficult to explain.

"While it's not the most massive quasar black hole known, it is seen so much earlier than the others that it is even harder to form in the time available," Mortlock told Space.com.

A number of theories that scientists have brought up to explain this anomaly include: the existence in the early universe of  "seed" black holes having up to 1,000 times our sun's mass; a high rate of black hole mergers; and the growth of black holes unaccompanied by much of the light given off by in-falling material, thus hiding the growth process.

New clue into early universe?
While this quasar adds to the mystery of these early massive black holes, it could help solve another enigma from the earliest times of the universe's estimated 13.7 billion years: a stage known as reionization.

  1. Space news from NBCNews.com
    1. KARE
      Teen's space mission fueled by social media

      Science editor Alan Boyle's blog: "Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew.

    2. Buzz Aldrin's vision for journey to Mars
    3. Giant black hole may be cooking up meals
    4. Watch a 'ring of fire' solar eclipse online

During this era between about 150 million to 800 million years after the Big Bang, the neutrally charged hydrogen pervading the universe was ionized into its constituent protons and electrons. The light from the newly discovered quasar suggests the universe was still filled with significant amounts of neutral hydrogen even 770 million years after the Big Bang, Mortlock said.

The next step is to find quasars as old or even older. "This should be done by surveys which are just starting now, such as the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) and Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) that are already under way," Mortlock said.

The scientists detailed their findings in the June 30 issue of the journal Nature.

Follow Space.com contributor Charles Q. Choi on Twitter @cqchoi. Visit Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

loading photos...
  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments