In a galaxy far, far away (that is to say, about 12.8 billion light-years away) a supermassive black hole has been discovered that is estimated to weigh as much as 12 billion suns and is 420 trillion times brighter than the sun. But it isn’t the weight and size that is baffling scientists–it’s how young it is.
It isn’t the largest black hole ever discovered, but it is amazingly young. It is said to have grown to it’s enormous size only 875 million years after the big bang when the universe was only at about 6 percent of its age. This is surprising to scientists because black holes are thought to grow relatively slowly as they vacuum up gas and stars that get too close.
Just to be clear, the pictures seen in this article are only artist representations of black holes. Normally, we can’t really see black holes because the gravitational mass is so great that not even light can escape it; however, astronomers were able to discover this particular black hole by detecting light from the quasar that surrounds it. A quasar is made up of materials swirling around a black hole that has yet to fall in; as the material accelerates, it gets hot and emits light. This quasar and black hole is the brightest and biggest, respectively, that has been found in the early universe. It is 40,000 times as luminous as the entire Milky Way galaxy.
The newly discovered quasar, SDSS J0100+2802, was spotted by a team of researchers using the Lijiang Telescope in Yunnan, China. The mass and distance of the object was confirmed via observations made with telescopes in Arizona, Hawaii, and Chile.
“This quasar is very unique,” said Dr. Xue-Bing Wu, an astronomy professor at Peking University and the associate director of the Kavli Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics. “Just like the brightest lighthouse in the distant universe, its glowing light will help us to probe more about the early universe.”
Black holes usually take billions of years to get as big as this newly discovered black hole. Some serious questions are being raised about how black holes evolve. Possible alternatives are being batted around to explain things: perhaps early stars that collapsed into black holes were larger than initially thought, or perhaps two larger black holes merged into one.
Researchers hope that further observations, using the Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Telescope, will help shed some light on the formation of black holes and galaxies in the early universe.