Scientists have discovered an anomalous black hole

Schematic representation of the look back into history

Schematic representation of the look back into history

Our understandings of the formation and beginnings of the universe suggest that a black hole with such a huge mass shouldn't actually have been able to form, scientists say. The existence of this supermassive black hole when the Universe was only 690 million years old, just five per cent of its current age, reinforces early models of black hole growth that allow black holes with initial masses of more than about 10M⊙ (refs 2, 3) or episodic hyper-Eddington accretion.

"In some sense, what we've done is determine with a high degree of accuracy when the first stars in the universe turned on", he said.

"The universe was just not old enough to make a black hole that big", Simcoe said in a statement from MIT.

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"I don't think 10 or 15 years ago anybody would expect there to be such a massive black hole that early in the universe", Geballe said. The instrument was developed with the participation of the Professor Robert Simcoe, and today he operates a 6.5-meter Giant Magellan telescope, located in Chile. During its early stage, the universe went through what is sometimes called the Dark Age - not a metaphor, as it is for the human period, but a truly a dark age as there was no light. As more stars turned on throughout the universe, their photons reacted with neutral hydrogen, ionizing the gas and setting off what's known as the epoch of re-ionization.

"This black hole grew far larger than we expected in only 690 million years after the Big Bang, which challenges our theories about how black holes form", said study co-author Daniel Stern of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

To make things even more interesting, this appears to be a supermassive black hole - the most massive known objects in the universe, the likes of which are thought to lie at the center of all galaxies. They extrapolated from that to estimate that the universe as a whole was likely about half neutral and half ionized at the time they observed the quasar.

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The object was discovered by Eduardo Bañados, an astronomer at Carnegie, as he was looking through multiple all-sky surveys - maps of the distant universe. Follow-up observations, as well as a search for similar quasars, are on track to put our picture of early cosmic history onto a solid footing.

Astronomers have at least two gnawing questions about the first billion years of the universe, an era steeped in literal fog and figurative mystery. "We now have the most accurate measurements to date of when the first stars were turning on". That means that the black hole quasar was formed exactly during that reionization phase after the Big Bang event. Extremely large black holes, such as the one identified by Simcoe and his colleagues, should form over periods much longer than 690 million years.

This research was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation (NSF), with support from construction of FIRE from NSF and from Curtis and Kathleen Marble.

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