Astronomers have discovered about 750,000 quasars, which are among the brightest and most energetic objects in the universe. Despite its uninspiring name, J0313-1806 differs from other quasars. This recently spotted object is the oldest known quasar in the universe, with a supermassive black hole more than 13 billion years old. In fact, it is so old and huge that scientists do not know exactly how it could have formed.
The first quasars were discovered in the middle of the 20th century, but only a few decades later did we begin to understand what these objects were. A quasar is an active galactic nucleus in which the supermassive black hole that anchors the galaxy pulls into matter to form a gaseous accretion disk. All this matter, which collides as it spirals in the black hole, releases a torrent of electromagnetic energy that serves as a hallmark of these objects. J0313-1806, for example, glows 1000 times brighter than our entire galaxy.
J0313-1806 is far away – 13.03 billion light years to be exact. This means that we see this object as it was only 670 million years after the Big Bang, and so it is. still huge. Astronomers estimate that J0313-1806 has about 1.6 billion solar masses as an observed age. It’s not out of order for a supermassive black hole elsewhere in the universe, but it took them longer to suck up matter and get bigger. J0313-1806 shouldn’t have time in the early universe to grow so big.
The team used ground-based instruments such as the Atacama Large Millimeter / Submillimeter Array (ALMA) and Mauna Kea Observatories (MKO) to discover J0313-1806 last year. He broke the previous record for the oldest quasar, which is about 20 million years younger. Modern models of black hold formation suggest that a star collapses to form a singularity, but the “seed mass” for J0313-1806 would have to be at least 10,000 solar masses to reach 1.6 billion so quickly.
The study hypothesizes the existence of this strange quasar, known as a direct collapse scenario. In this model, no collapsing star has formed the supermassive black hole. Instead, a huge cloud of cold hydrogen gas crashed inward to form a much larger black hole than any stellar source could produce. This may explain why astronomers see so many giant black holes in the early universe.
Unfortunately, J0313-1806 is so far away that we can’t gather much more detail with the current technology. However, the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope could be accurate enough to depict objects such as J0313-1806. After many years of delay, NASA plans to launch the Webb telescope at the end of 2021.