Lurking in a distant region of space more than 13 billion light-years away is bright. ““powered by 1.6 billion times more massive than the sun. Astronomers have recently spotted the galactic beast, noting the oldest of its kind.
The ancient, defined as a bright, massive, distant active galactic nucleus emitting huge amounts of energy, has been named J0313-1806 by an international team led by researchers at the University of Arizona. It dates back to the staggering 670 million years after the Big Bang ̵
This makes it the most distant – meaning the earliest – known quasar. The previous record quasar was also discovered recently, in 2017.
J0313-1806 is only 20 million light-years away from its predecessor, but itsis twice as severe – challenging known theories about the formation of black holes in the early universe.
The team presented its findings, which will be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, at the virtual 237th meeting of the American Astronomical Society this week.
“This is the earliest evidence of how a supermassive black hole affects its host galaxy around it,” lead author Fage Wang said in a statement. “We know from observations of less distant galaxies that this must happen, but we have never seen this happen so early in the universe.”
Scientists believe that supermassive black holes absorb huge amounts of matter, such as gas or stars, to form an accretion disk that revolves around itself – creating a quasar. These objects are the brightest in space due to this huge amount of energy.
The celestial object is also the first of its kind to provide evidence of a hot, gaseous wind pouring out of its black hole at one-fifth the speed of light – a surprising discovery.
The formation of the quasar, however, remains a bit of a mystery.
Black holes usually form when a star explodes, dies, and collapses, and supermassive black holes grow as black holes fuse over time. However, quasars in the early universe are too young to grow so large, so fast, in this way.
The supermassive black hole at the center of J0313-1806 is so large – still growing as it absorbs the mass equivalent of about 25 suns each year – it cannot be explained by a number of previous hypotheses.
“This tells you that whatever you do, the seed of this black hole must have been formed by a different mechanism,” said co-author Xiaohui Feng. “In this case, the one that involves huge amounts of primary, cold hydrogen gas collapses directly into the seed black hole.”
In this scenario, instead of a star crashing into a black hole, huge amounts of cold hydrogen gas are responsible instead.
When quasars blow up their surroundings, they eliminate much of the cold gas needed to form stars. Therefore, scientists believe that supermassive black holes in the center of galaxies may be the reason galaxies stop forming new stars.
“We think these supermassive black holes are the reason why many large galaxies have stopped forming stars at some point,” Fenn said. “We are seeing this ‘suppression’ at lower redshifts, but so far we did not know how early this process began in the history of the universe. This quasar is the earliest evidence that hardening may have occurred at a very early age.”
J0313-1806 pumps 200 solar masses per year. For comparisonforms stars at a “leisurely pace” of about one solar mass each year.
“This is a relatively high rate of star formation, similar to that observed in other quasars of a similar age, and tells us that the host galaxy is growing very fast,” Wang said.
“These quasars are probably still in the process of building their supermassive black holes,” Fenn added. “Over time, the leakage of the quasar heats up and pushes all the gas out of the galaxy, and then the black hole has nothing to eat and will stop growing. This is evidence of how these earliest massive galaxies and their quasars grew.”
The quasar offers a rare look at the formation of galaxies at the beginning of the universe, but researchers need a more powerful telescope to study it further. NASA, scheduled to launch this year, will allow a more detailed investigation.
“With ground-based telescopes, we can only see a point source,” Wang said. “Future observations could allow for a more detailed resolution of the quasar, to show the structure of its leakage and how far the wind extends in its galaxy, and that would give us a much better idea of its evolutionary stage.”