Powered by a supermassive black hole two billion times the size of the sun, a quasar blasts a radiating laser of light into deep space. The discovery marks both the brightest and most distant quasar ever found, and was unveiled by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) on June 29.
Quasars are intensely bright galaxies scientists believe are powered by supermassive black holes at their centers. Some of the brightest phenomena observed in space are gamma-ray bursts and galaxies at redshifts, but “the newly discovered quasar is hundreds of times brighter than these,” according to the ESO—so bright, in fact that they believe its light probes another era of space.
Results of the new findings were published in the June 30 issue of the Journal Nature. The quasar has been named ULAS J1120+0641.
The quasar was found after five years of searching through databases containing images of millions of objects. It was observed by the European UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey (UKIDSS), using the UK’s dedicated infrared telescope in Hawaii.
“We think there are only about 100 bright quasars with redshift higher than 7 over the whole sky,” said Daniel Mortlock, the leading author of the paper, in a press release. “Finding this object required a painstaking search, but it was worth the effort to be able to unravel some of the mysteries of the early Universe.”
Due to the amount of time it would take for light from the quasar to reach the earth (allowing researchers to see it), it gives a window dating back an estimated 12.9 billion years. Since the quasar is incredibly bright, astronomers were able to take a spectrum of it (splitting its light into component colors), they were able to “find out quite a lot about the quasar,” according to the press release.
It adds, however, that the age of the quasar poses some difficult questions. The spectrum revealed the black hole at the center of the quasar, with a mass of two billion suns, doesn’t quite match up with the Big Bang theory.
“This very high mass is hard to explain so early on after the Big Bang. Current theories for the growth of supermassive black holes predict a slow build-up in mass as the compact object pulls in matter from its surroundings,” it states.
Given the size of the quasar, and its estimated age, it was compared to “finding a 6-foot-tall child in kindergarten,” by astrophysicist Marta Volonteri, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, in a story by Science News.
Check out the artistic rendition of the newly discovered quasar in the video below.
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