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Massive black hole reveals when the first stars blinked on
08 December 2017, 01:11 | Ross Houston
Scientists find 'behemoth' black hole so big it could challenge our understanding of the universe's beginning
Astronomers have discovered the oldest and farthest supermassive black hole known to science, and it boasts of a size that is 800 million times that of the sun.
The black hole is measured to be about 800 million times as massive as our sun - a Goliath by modern-day standards and a relative anomaly in the early universe.
Professor Robert Simcoe of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said that this object provides us with the measurement of the time at which the universe first became illuminated with starlight.
Unfortunately, the question remains how this black hole formed when it did. Some hundreds of millions of years later, the energetic ultraviolet radiation of the first stars and the accretion disks of the first black holes reionized almost all of the hydrogen in the universe, separating the electrons from the hydrogen nuclei (protons). More and more stars were forming, eventually generating enough radiation to flip hydrogen from neutral (in which electrons are bound to the nucleus) to ionized (in which electrons are freer to interact). It's also very active, devouring material at the center of a galaxy and emitting tremendous light in the process.
"This is the only object we have observed from this era", says Simcoe. Researchers report the find in the journal Nature. The other lead authors are from the Carnegie Institution for Science, in Pasadena, California.
It has been challenging for the scientists to explain how black holes gobbled up enough matter to reach supermassive sizes early in the history.
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This is very unlike the black holes that form in the present-day universe, which rarely exceed a few dozen solar masses.
After identifying several objects of interest, Bañados focused in on them using an instrument known as FIRE (the Folded-port InfraRed Echellette), which was built by Simcoe and operates at the 6.5-meter-diameter Magellan telescopes in Chile. "But it's pretty hard to get that kind of a mass that early in the universe".
Astronomers refer to this Doppler-like phenomenon as "redshift"; the more distant an object, the farther its light has shifted toward the red, or infrared end of the spectrum. The higher the redshift, the greater the distance, and the farther back astronomers are looking in time when they observe the object. The earliest known galaxy discovered by the Hubble space telescope existed 400 million years after the Big Bang, according to NASA's website.
Geballe, who was not part of the research team, said finding out why such massive black holes existed then will help astronomers understand how the cosmos evolved.
Throughout the time of this newest quasar, the universe was arising from the Dark Ages. Immediately following the Big Bang, the universe resembled a cosmic soup of hot, extremely energetic particles. It is surrounded by neutral hydrogen, indicating that it is from the period called the epoch of reionization, when the universe's first light sources turned on.
Black holes are the remnants of collapsed stars, with gravity so strong that light itself can't escape.
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