Astronomy

Astronomers Discover Earliest Black Hole And Quasar In The Universe

January 13, 2021, 7:30 AM HST
* Updated January 13, 7:02 AM
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An artist’s impression of quasar J0313-1806 showing the supermassive black hole and the extremely high velocity wind. The quasar, seen just 670 million years after the Big Bang, is 1000 times more luminous than the Milky Way, and is powered by the earliest known supermassive black hole, which weighs in at more than 1.6 billion times the mass of the Sun. Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva

Astronomers have discovered the most distant quasar ever found using several Maunakea Observatories.

Using WM Keck Observatory along with Gemini Observatory, and UKIRT – as well as the University of Hawaiʻi’s Pan-STARRS1 telescope on Maui – astronomers were able to find one of the most powerful, energetic known objects in the universe, powered by a supermassive black hole and weighing more than 1.6 billion times the mass of our Sun.

“The most distant quasars are crucial for understanding how the earliest black holes formed and for understanding cosmic reionization — the last major phase transition of our universe,” said Xiaohui Fan, study co-author and Regents Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona.

The announcement was made at a press conference today at the January 2021 virtual meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Astronomers identified the quasar as J0313-1806.

The presence of such a massive black hole so early in the universe’s history challenges theories of black hole formation.

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“Black holes created by the very first massive stars could not have grown this large in only a few hundred million years,” says Feige Wang, NASA Hubble fellow at the University of Arizona and lead author of the research paper.

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In addition to weighing the monster black hole, the Keck Observatory and Gemini North observations uncovered an extremely fast outflow emanating from the quasar in the form of a high-velocity wind traveling at 20% of the speed of light.

“The energy released by such an extreme high-velocity outflow is large enough to impact the star formation in the entire quasar host galaxy,” said co-author Jinyi Yang, Peter A. Strittmatter postdoctoral fellow of Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona.

This is the earliest known example of a quasar sculpting the growth of its host galaxy, making the discovery of the new quasar a promising target for future observations.

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The galaxy hosting J0313-1806’s is undergoing a spurt of star formation, producing new stars 200 times faster than the Milky Way. The combination of this intense star formation, the luminous quasar, and the high-velocity outflow make J0313-1806 and its host galaxy a promising natural laboratory for understanding the growth of supermassive black holes and their host galaxies in the early universe.

“This would be a great target to investigate the formation of the earliest supermassive black holes,” concluded Wang. “We also hope to learn more about the effect of quasar outflows on their host galaxy — as well as to learn how the most massive galaxies formed in the early universe.”

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