Hagai Netzer of Tel Aviv University's School of Physics and Astronomy, working with colleagues in China and France, says radiation emitted in the vicinity of black holes could be used to measure those distances, which translate into seeing far into the past of the universe and being able to estimate its rate of expansion at a very young age.
Material drawn into massive black holes in the center of galaxies heats up and emits a huge amount of radiation -- up to a thousand times the energy produced by a large galaxy containing 100 billion stars -- which can be seen from very far distances, Netzer said.
Detecting this energy, it's possible to infer the distance to the black hole itself and the time in the history of the universe when the energy was emitted, he said.
The ability to accurately measure far-off distances has the potential to unravel some of the greatest mysteries of the universe, which is approximately 14 billion years old.
"When we are looking into a distance of billions of light years, we are looking that far into the past," Netzer said. "The light that I see today was first produced when the universe was much younger."