In an unexpected discovery that shifts how scientists think about the early days of the universe, astronomers have detected a supermassive black hole that they say is the most distant ever observed.
The colossal black hole is so far away that light from the quasar in which it is located was emitted just 690 million years after the Big Bang, which took place 13.8 billion years ago. Quasars are star-like celestial objects made up of a supermassive black hole and surrounding gas, which shines with incredible brilliance as it falls into the black hole.
The newfound object certainly lives up to the supermassive moniker; it’s about 800 million times as massive as the sun. In comparison, the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, Sagittarius A*, is about 4.6 million times as massive as the sun.
That stupendous size has astronomers scratching their heads.
“Now that we are seeing it, we have to explain it,” Dr. Eduardo Banados, an astrophysicist with the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena, California, and the lead author of a paper about the discovery, told the Los Angeles Times. “And that is a big challenge for theorists right now.”
The paper was published online Dec. 6, 2017 in the journal Nature.
Larger supermassive black holes have been discovered, Dr. Robert Simcoe, a professor at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research and co-author of the paper, told NBC News MACH in an email. “What’s unprecedented is the combination of large size so early in the history of the universe.”
Given that large black holes are believed to grow from smaller “seeds,” Simcoe added, “it seems this one is much larger than we would expect given how young the universe was at that time.”
The unexpected discovery lends support to an idea put forth by some astronomers, including Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan, a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. In an email to MACH, she said she and the others have argued that, rather than being only about 100 to 1,000 times as massive as the sun, some black hole seeds must have been 10,000 to 100,000 times more massive.
“If [we] have a head start and begin with more massive initial seeds, we can easily explain the growth history of these monster black holes,” she said. “So, the discovery of this object is tantalizing and lends support to this idea of obese starter black hole seeds.”
Banados made the discovery while looking for quasars in various maps of the early universe, and then making observations with a telescope instrument in Chile known as the Folded-port InfraRed Echellette, or FIRE.
The discovery may be only a prelude to discoveries yet to come. Simone said finding such objects could become a "growth industry" in the next decade.
And as Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the celebrated astrophysicist who heads the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, told MACH in an email, "What looks to be anomalous discoveries now in the early universe may become commonplace for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is specifically tuned to explore the formation of galaxies in that era."
NASA says the Webb telescope will launch in spring of 2019.