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Astronomers spy most distant quasar with powerful radio jets

Astronomers spy most distant quasar with powerful radio jets
Researchers spotted a quasar with radio jets located 13 billion light-years from Earth, the most distant of its kind. Photo by ESO/M. Kornmesser

March 8 (UPI) -- Using the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, an international team of scientists identified the most distant source of radio emissions yet discovered.

Astronomers were able to trace the radio emissions to a "radio-loud" quasar located 13 billion light-years from Earth.

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Quasars are sources of intense radiation and luminosity powered by supermassive black holes at the center of distant galaxies. Radio-loud quasars produce powerful jets featuring radio waves.

The light and radio waves produced by the newly discovered quasar, named P172+18, is ancient. The emissions fielded by VLT began their journey 13 billion years ago.

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By observing distant sources of light and radio emissions, astronomers can look back in time and gain insights into the nature of the early universe.

They described their efforts in a new paper published Monday in the Astrophysical Journal.

"I find it very exciting to discover 'new' black holes for the first time, and to provide one more building block to understand the primordial Universe, where we come from, and ultimately ourselves," astronomer Chiara Mazzucchelli, co-first author of the new study and research fellow at ESO in Chile, said in a news release.

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The ancient light suggests this particular supermassive black hole was consuming gas, dust and stellar material at a prodigious rate when the universe was only 780 million years old -- a relative infant. Observations suggest the quasar is 300 million times more massive than our sun.

"The black hole is eating up matter very rapidly, growing in mass at one of the highest rates ever observed," said Mazzucchelli.

Scientists suspect the disruptive nature of the powerful jets emanating from large quasars make it easier for the supermassive black hole's accretion disk to pull in more and more galactic material.

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The distant quasar was first spotted by the Magellan Telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, but later surveyed in greater detail using VLT.

As more powerful observatories come online, researchers hope to locate even bigger and older quasars in the primordial universe.

"This discovery makes me optimistic and I believe -- and hope -- that the distance record will be broken soon," said co-first author Eduardo BaƱados of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany.

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