An artistic rendering shows the Magellan Telescopes peering up at the most-distant supermassive black hole yet discovered. Photo by Robin Dienel/Carnegie Institution for Science
Dec. 6 (UPI) -- Astronomers have spied the most-distant supermassive black hole yet discovered using the Magellan Telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.
The black hole is positioned at the center of a quasar, the massive, highly luminous accretion disks found at the center of many galaxies. The quasar's light traveled some 13 billion light-years before reaching the Magellan Telescopes.
The new observations -- detailed in the journal Nature -- reveal the black hole as it was just 690 million years after the birth of the universe.
Scientists were surprised by the black hole's tremendous mass, 800 million times the mass of the sun.
"Gathering all this mass in fewer than 690 million years is an enormous challenge for theories of supermassive black hole growth," Eduardo Bañados, an astronomer with the Carnegie Institution for Science, said in a news release.
Today, newly formed black holes rarely grow larger than a few dozen solar masses. But in the early universe, astronomers believe conditions were more favorable to the growth of supermassive black holes. These black holes fueled giant, extremely bright quasars.
"Quasars are among the brightest and most-distant known celestial objects and are crucial to understanding the early universe," said Bram Venemans, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany.
The newly discovered quasar hails from the time of reionization, when light from the earliest stars and galaxies exited neutral hydrogen gas atoms, causing them to ionize, or lose an electron. The ionization of the cosmos' gas allowed light to move more freely through space.
Analysis of the newly observed quasar shows the accretion disk still hosted a significant amount of neutral hydrogen gas, proving the radiation from new stars was not yet sufficient to fully ionize the cosmos.
Though cosmologists estimate the early universe hosted between 20 and 100 quasars, until now, only one had been found at such a dramatic distance. Now, two have been discovered. In the coming years, astronomers hope to find more.
"This is a very exciting discovery, found by scouring the new generation of wide-area, sensitive surveys astronomers are conducting using NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer in orbit and ground-based telescopes in Chile and Hawaii," said Daniel Stern of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. "With several next-generation, even-more-sensitive facilities currently being built, we can expect many exciting discoveries in the very early universe in the coming years."