An international team of astronomers has discovered the earliest and most distant quasar in the universe, fully formed as early as 670 million years after the Big Bang. The results of the study are published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The quasar, dubbed J0313-1806, is more than 13 billion light-years from Earth. Powered by a supermassive black hole, it is more than 1.6 billion times more massive than the Sun and more than 1,000 times brighter than our entire Milky Way galaxy.
To determine the exact distance to the quasar, the scientists used a set of radio telescopes ALMA in Chile’s Atacama desert, the 6.5-meter telescope Magellan Baade at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, telescopes Gemini in Chile and Hawaii, as well as the WM Keck Observatory in Hawaii.
Quasars arise when the powerful gravity of a supermassive black hole in the core of a galaxy pulls in the surrounding material, which forms a spinning disk around the hole. At the same time, a huge amount of energy is released. This makes the quasar so bright that it often outshines the rest of the galaxy.
“This is the earliest evidence of how a supermassive black hole affects the galaxy around it,” the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) quoted study leader Feige Wang of the University of Arizona’s Stewart Observatory in a press release. – From observations of less distant galaxies, we know what should happen, but we have never seen it happen so early in the Universe.
Such an early formation of a huge black hole and quasar J0313-1806 rules out two of the possible hypotheses for the formation of such objects. In the first of these models, individual massive stars explode as supernovae and collapse into black holes, which then merge into larger black holes. In the second, dense clusters of stars collapse into a massive black hole. In both cases, however, the process takes too long for a black hole as massive as J0313-1806 to form 670 million years after the Big Bang.
“This suggests that this black hole must have formed using a different mechanism,” said another participant in the study, Xiaohui Fan of the University of Arizona. – “In this case, it’s a mechanism that involves huge amounts of primary cold hydrogen gas directly collapsing into a black hole nucleus.
Because it does not require full-fledged stars as source material, this is the only mechanism that would allow the supermassive black hole of quasar J0313-1806 to grow to 1.6 billion solar masses at such an early stage in the universe’s existence, the researchers believe.
According to their calculations, the parent galaxy of the quasar must have formed stars 200 times faster than our Milky Way. This indicates that the galaxy itself grew very fast, and the black hole in its center absorbed 25 solar masses every year.
The energy released by such a fast feed drives a powerful stream of ionized gas that travels at about 20 percent of the speed of light. Such powerful outflows must eventually have stopped star formation in the galaxy, the paper’s authors note.
“We think these supermassive black holes caused many of the larger galaxies to stop forming stars at some point,” Fan explains. – We’ve observed a similar “fading” at a later time, but until now, we didn’t know when this process began in the history of the Universe. This quasar is the oldest evidence that extinction may have occurred at very early times.
Researchers hope to learn more about distant quasars during future observations with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2021.