The black hole was detected by Eduardo Bañados of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who was scouring surveys of the sky to look for ancient objects like this one.
"This is a very exciting discovery", he said. But in the early universe, astronomers believe conditions were more favorable to the growth of supermassive black holes. In black holes, gravity has such a strong pull that not even light can escape.
Scientists may have just discovered when the first stars in the universe were born.
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"This is the only object we have observed from this era", said Robert Simcoe, the Francis L. Friedman professor of physics at MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. This newfound giant black hole, which formed just 690 million years after the Big Bang, could one day help shed light on a number of cosmic mysteries, such as how black holes could have reached gargantuan sizes quickly after the Big Bang and how the universe got cleared of the murky fog that once filled the entire cosmos, the researchers said in the new study. The universe was just not old enough to make a black hole that big.
Space.com has a look at a supermassive black hole (a black hole millions of times larger than the sun) that's extremely, extremely old.
The results described here were published as Bañados et al., "An 800 million solar mass black hole in a significantly neutral universe at redshift 7.5" in the journal Nature, and as Venemans et al., "Copious amounts of dust and gas in a z=7.5 quasar host galaxy" in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
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The higher the redshift, the greater the distance, and the farther back astronomers are looking in time when they observe the object. About half the hydrogen atoms near this quasar, however, are neutral, which means they're still holding onto their electrons.
"With several next-generation, even-more-sensitive facilities now being built, we can expect many exciting discoveries in the very early universe in the coming years", Daniel Stern of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, also a coauthor on the paper, said in another statement.
"What we have found is that the universe was about 50/50 - it's a moment when the first galaxies emerged from their cocoons of neutral gas and started to shine their way out", Simcoe says. "This is the most accurate measurement of that time, and a real indication of when the first stars turned on".
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This was a major moment in history, he adds: "It's when the universe first started manufacturing chemicals other than hydrogen and helium, all the elements of the periodic table were starting to be formed". 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. It dates back to 690 million years after the Big Bang. Extremely large black holes, such as the one identified by Simcoe and his colleagues, should form over periods much longer than 690 million years. As the universe expanded in size, those particles cooled down, and as they did they formed into a neutral hydrogen gas during which it was completely dark.