A Monster in the Nursery

Scientists recently discovered an ancient supermassive black hole that existed so early in the history of the universe that it will provide new insight into the cosmic environment in which the first stars came to life. The most distant black hole ever observed, astronomers found it within a bright object so distant that its light had to travel for 13 billion years to reach our telescopes.

Image credit: Marek Koteluk / Flickr

The magnificent black hole is estimated at 800 million times our Sun's mass. Astronomers, including Rob Simcoe, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are nonplussed as to how such a monster could form so early in cosmic history; a mere 690 million years after the Big Bang, when the cosmos was only 5 percent of its present age.

"We expected as we looked further back into time that the black holes would be smaller and smaller because they hadn't had as much time to grow," Simcoe, who is one of the authors of the study that appeared in Nature, said to NPR. "What was surprising here was that this one seemed to be fully formed even though the universe was very young at this period in time," he added.

Black Hole Out of Time

More specifically, Simcoe explained, it seems this supermassive black hole came into being in an environment that had only begun to be affected by the very first stars' light.

"The moment when the first stars turned on is when our universe filled with light," Simcoe told NPR, further elaborating that initial light sources in the universe actually changed the properties of matter in the first galaxies. "We have an estimate now, with one to two percent accuracy, for the moment at which starlight first illuminated the universe."

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This is significant because it will aid our understanding of a period of time when the universe had only begun manufacturing chemicals more complex than hydrogen and helium, nuclear fusion moving its way down the periodic table.

First detected by Eduardo Bañados of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science, Simcoe gives all the credit to him for "finding that needle in the haystack."

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