Today, astronomers announced the discovery of a gargantuan black hole powering an ultra-luminous quasar—the brightest and most powerful objects in the universe.
But it's not just any old black hole. According to University of Arizona cosmologist Xiaohui Fan, who was part of the international team responsible for its discovery, the newly identified system contains the most luminous quasar and the most massive black hole ever found in the early universe. "By the early [universe], we usually mean within one billion years from the Big Bang," Fan told Motherboard, adding that the current age of the universe is 13.7 billion years.
Quasars are formed when clouds of dust and debris fall into a supermassive black hole, and are forcefully ejected in twin jets of radiant particles above and below the hole.
This particular quasar, named SDSS J0100+2802, shines with the intensity of 420 trillion Suns. The black hole at its center is about 12 billion times as massive as our star—a giant of truly mind-boggling proportions. Even the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way is 3,000 times less massive than the monster powering SDSS J0100+2802.
SDSS J0100+2802 is more than a record-breaker, too. It's an ancient record-breaker. Located about 12.8 billion light years away, this quasar is extremely old and distant, and the light we are receiving from it today actually originates from the very dawn of the universe. According to Fan, it will have most likely evolved into an elliptical galaxy by now.
The quasar's enormous size is highly unusual for the period in which it was born. As Fan and his colleagues explained in a forthcoming paper in Nature, to be published on February 26, these dimensions fly in the face of current cosmological models for quasar formation.
"There are natural limits of how rapid a black hole can grow and how early they can grow," Fan said. "The fact that this object is so massive and so early means we might have to adjust our models of how these natural limits work."
It's the understanding of scientists that, as material falls into a black hole, a large amount of light is ejected as a result. This ejected light has a "radiation pressure" that prevents more material from being gobbled up by the black hole—thus inhibiting the growth of the hole.
"[O]ne can't grow a black hole too fast," Fan said. Accordingly, SDSS J0100+2802 may have developed far earlier than scientists thought possible. Another option is that the quasar may have developed much more rapidly than the more modern quasars observed by astronomers. Either way, its growth and behavior is unusual.
Fan and his co-authors, led by Peking University astronomer Xue-Bing Wu, first spotted the quasar in December 2013 using the Lijiang 2.4-m telescope in China. The discovery marks the first time such a distant quasar has ever been captured by a telescope of this modest size. Once it was found, several telescopes with higher resolution, including the8.4-meter Large Binocular Telescope that Fan helps operate in Arizona, confirmed its spectacular dimensions.
As with so many discoveries that pull the rug out from beneath prevailing consensus, the next step for the team is to collect more data. "For this object itself, we are conducting more observations to study its surroundings, using facilities such as Hubble," Fan said. "In addition, we are searching for more sky, hoping to find even more massive or more distant ones."
With ever more advanced telescopes, arrays, and surveys scanning the skies, the odds are that even weirder objects will be turned up in the coming years. It seems that the further astronomers reach back into time and space, the more our prevailing assumptions about the universe's infancy are challenged.