But even more exciting than the black hole itself is the luminous disk of gas orbiting it-combined, the black hole and gas disk form a system called a quasar, and this one is shedding new light on the early cosmos. This shift from neutral to ionized hydrogen represented a fundamental change in the universe that has persisted to this day. This black hole was seen devouring material at the center of a galaxy. These findings are published today in the peer-reviewed journal Nature.
Banados and his team used the Carnegie's Magellan telescopes in Chile, supported by observatories in Hawaii, the American Southwest and the French Alps.
The astronomer who found the unusual black hole said that there's no way of explaining how a black hole would be able to pick up such mass, and that it might challenge out current understandings of how black holes form. There, a spectrometer known as the Folded-port InfraRed Echellette (FIRE) was able to determine the objects' distance and mass based on its "redshift".
Artist's concept of the quasar and its black hole in space.
The redshift measurement is 7.54, making it the second of only two known quasars with a redshift above 7. Explaining how such a massive black hole could have formed in such a comparatively short amount of available time is a challenge for models of supermassive black hole formation, and effectively rules out some of those models.
Quasars are powered by supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies - in this case, a black hole with nearly a billion times the mass of the Sun.
The newly identified quasar appears to inhabit a pivotal moment in the universe's history. About 400,000 years after the initial explosion, the primordial soup of high energy particles cooled down to become a neutral hydrogen gas.
"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", says MIT's Robert Simcoe, co-author of the study. Eventually gravity condensed matter and the first few stars and galaxies were born.
That's how much light gets distorted into the red spectrum over time as it moves away from the viewer. "They're rare, but they're very much there, and we need to figure out how they form", said Priyamvada Natarajan, an astrophysicist at Yale University who was not part of the research team. That helped scientists estimate that the stars turned on roughly when it began its journey - about 696 million years after the big bang. Eduardo Bañados, lead author of the article describing the discovery, says: "Reionization was the universe's last major transition, and it is one of the current frontiers in astrophysics". "We now have the most accurate measurements to date of when the first stars were turning on". They are amazed to discover so massive a black hole so early in cosmic history, which challenges our understanding of the early growth of supermassive black holes and their host galaxies. They want to know what burned the fog away: stars, supermassive black holes, or both in tandem?
The quasar formed when the universe was just 690 million years old.
"If you start with a seed like a big star, and let it grow at the maximum possible rate, and start at the moment of the Big Bang, you could never make something with 800 million solar masses - it's unrealistic", Professor Simcoe said.