There is still a great deal scientists don’t know about the early universe. Most celestial objects from that era are long gone, and those that still exist from our perspective are extremely distant. That’s why finding ancient quasars is so important. These active supermassive black holes are so bright, we can observe them even from extreme distances. A study involving multiple teams and telescopes around the world has just resulted in the discovery of the oldest supermassive black hole yet. It formed just 690 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was 5 percent of its current age.
The newly discovered quasar goes by ULAS J1342+0928 and is located some 13.1 billion light years away from Earth. That’s also how we know it’s 13.1 billion years old, give or take a few million. Astronomers used the Magellan Telescopes at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile along with the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona and the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii to confirm the black hole’s location and age.
They estimate its mass at 800 million times that of the sun. That’s very big for a black hole, but it’s not the largest ever seen. In today’s universe, quasars are found at the heart of active galaxies where they have ample supplies of matter to ingest. It’s not strange to find a black hole much larger than J1342+0928 now — the galaxy M87 has a supermassive black hole in its center that weighs around 7 billion times as much as the sun. However, 800 million solar masses in the early universe is unexpected.
Understanding how the quasar got so large so fast could be vital to unlocking the mysteries of a pivotal time in the universe known as the epoch of reionization. During this time, neutral hydrogen prevented light from traveling freely in the universe. Then, stars formed and kicked off ionization of this murky atomic soup. Many scientists believe black holes may also have played a role. J1342+0928 was born around this time, so studying it could help us understand how reionization happened. The study notes that most of the hydrogen around J1342+0928 appears to be neutrally charged.
The previous record holder for oldest quasar was only about 60 million years younger than J1342+0928. That could still make a big difference, though. That’s around 10 percent of the universe’s age at the time, and conditions would have been changing rapidly, at least on a cosmological scale. J1342+0928 is so bright that it will be an ideal target for future study, but it’s so bright and large that astronomers suspect even older quasars are out there. Those could tell us even more if we can find them.
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