The most distant black hole ever found is nearly 13 billion light-years from Earth, astronomers announced today.
The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope spotted the bright burst of light the black hole created as it sucked up nearby gas, heating it and causing it to glow very brightly in what's known as a quasar.
The distance to the quasar, which sits in the constellation Pisces, was determined by measuring the amount of redshift in the lines of the quasar's spectrum, or prism of light. Because light is "redshifted" to longer wavelengths as an object moves away from an observer, the higher the redshift, the further away the object is-and this quasar had quite a large redshift.
"As soon as I saw the spectrum with its booming emission line, I knew this one was a long way away," said team member Chris Willott of the University of Ottawa.
Because the Big Bang is believed to have occurred around 13.7 billion years ago, astronomers are seeing the quasar as it appeared a mere 1 billion years after the Big Bang, which gives them a unique view into universe's past.
Sometime around the universe's one billionth birthday, the first stars and galaxies began to shine and ionized all of the hydrogen atoms in the universe (or removed an electron from each atom). The quasar's bright light illuminates the hydrogen gas in front of it, which lets astronomers see whether the atoms still have their electrons attached or not, which could help pin down the date of this momentous event.
The quasar might also be able to help astronomers learn about the growth of the first black holes; the black hole powering this quasar is estimated to be about 500 million times the mass of the sun, which is thought to be unusual for an early black hole.
"It is puzzling how such enormous black holes are found so early on in the universe ... because we believe that black holes take a long time to grow," said team member John Hutchings of the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics.
The finding was announced at the annual conference of the Canadian Astronomical Society.