An artist’s concept of the most distant supermassive black hole known. The quasar is growing in mass as it is fed by a swirling disk of hot gas and dust. (Image: Robin Dienel, courtesy of the Carnegie Institution for Science)
An artist’s concept of the most distant supermassive black hole known. The quasar is growing in mass as it is fed by a swirling disk of hot gas and dust. (Image: Robin Dienel, courtesy of the Carnegie Institution for Science)

Gargantua in the Mist: A Record-Breaking Quasar

The discovery of a precocious black hole behemoth at the edge of cosmic dawn has researchers puzzled. Seen actively devouring stars and other matter at a time when the universe was only 5 percent of its present age, the object is the most distant quasar known to date.
Dec. 6, 2017
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The research paper is "An 800 million solar mass black hole in a significantly neutral universe at a redshift of 7.5,” Bañados et al. 2017, Nature (http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature25180)

The Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) is part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation. The Gemini Observatory is operated by AURA, under a cooperative agreement with the NSF on behalf of the Gemini partnership: the National Science Foundation (U.S.), the National Research Council (Canada), CONICYT (Chile), Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación Productiva (Argentina) and Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação (Brazil).

An artist's impression of the supermassive black hole residing in a mostly neutral universe, 690 million years after the Big Bang, at a time when the first galaxies were appearing. (Image: Robin Dienel, courtesy of the Carnegie Institution for Science)
An artist's impression of the supermassive black hole residing in a mostly neutral universe, 690 million years after the Big Bang, at a time when the first galaxies were appearing. (Image: Robin Dienel, courtesy of the Carnegie Institution for Science)
The new supermassive black hole J1342+0928 (yellow star), which resides in a mostly neutral universe at the edge of cosmic dawn, is more distant than any other found to date (yellow dots). The uppermost dot represents the most massive black hole ever discovered (by a team including UA's Xiaohui Fan). (Image: Jinyi Yang/UA; Reidar Hahn/Fermilab; M. Newhouse/NOAO/AURA/NSF)
The new supermassive black hole J1342+0928 (yellow star), which resides in a mostly neutral universe at the edge of cosmic dawn, is more distant than any other found to date (yellow dots). The uppermost dot represents the most massive black hole ever discovered (by a team including UA's Xiaohui Fan). (Image: Jinyi Yang/UA; Reidar Hahn/Fermilab; M. Newhouse/NOAO/AURA/NSF)
The non-detection of J1342+0928 in visible light (image top left), despite its brightness in the infrared (in the Magellan image, top right), identifies it as an interesting distant object. From the spectrum of the object (taken with Gemini, Magellan and LBT), which identified it as the most distant quasar known, the research team also measured the mass of its supermassive black hole. (Image: Eduardo Bañados/Carnegie Observatories and Xiaohui Fan/UA)
The non-detection of J1342+0928 in visible light (image top left), despite its brightness in the infrared (in the Magellan image, top right), identifies it as an interesting distant object. From the spectrum of the object (taken with Gemini, Magellan and LBT), which identified it as the most distant quasar known, the research team also measured the mass of its supermassive black hole. (Image: Eduardo Bañados/Carnegie Observatories and Xiaohui Fan/UA)

Supermassive black holes lurk at the centers of many galaxies. While some — like the black hole at the center of our own Milky Way — live quiet lives, occasionally snacking on a star or two, others feed voraciously, consuming gas and stars and growing rapidly in mass.

To understand when supermassive black holes first appeared, astronomers scan the skies for actively-feeding black holes (known as "quasars") from the universe’s distant past. The latest discovery, by a team led by Eduardo Bañados (Carnegie Observatories) and published in the journal Nature, is a record-breaker: J1342+0928, the most distant quasar known.

Because the universe has been expanding since the Big Bang, the more distant a cosmic object lies from an Earth-based observer, the faster it speeds away. Astronomers can measure this speed by taking advantage of the Doppler effect: Much like the siren of an ambulance is heard at lower frequencies the faster it is speeding away from a pedestrian's ears, the light coming from a distant cosmic object is shifted toward longer and longer wavelengths, in other words, into the red visible light and all the way into the near-infrared and infrared. 

"The new object is so far away that it is undetectable in visible light," explains Xiaohui Fan, a Regents' Professor at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory and a coauthor of the study. "It is missing in very deep visible light images, with its light shifted completely into the infrared, and that tells us it is extremely far away." 

The new quasar is spotted at a redshift of 7.54, when the universe was only 690 million years old, or 5 percent of its current age. The universe was rapidly changing at this time. The first galaxies were appearing, and their energetic radiation had begun to ionize the surrounding intergalactic gas, illuminating and forever transforming the universe from neutral to ionized. The discovery that the new quasar resides in a primarily neutral universe places it solidly in this era, at the edge of cosmic dawn.

Sun's Mass Times 800 Million

Despite its young age, the quasar harbors a whopper of a black hole — 800 million times the mass of the sun.

For Fan, it is amazing to discover so massive a black hole so early in cosmic history.

"The new quasar is itself one of the first galaxies, and yet it already harbors a behemoth black hole as massive as others in the present-day universe," said Fan, who was part of a team that in 2015 discovered a quasar that still holds the record of being the most massive black hole ever found in the early universe.

Now the discovery of a smaller but more distant cousin challenges our understanding of the early growth of supermassive black holes and their host galaxies.

Quasars such as J1342+0928 are rare. The study that revealed the existence of J1342+0928 searched one-tenth of the entire sky, yielding only one quasar at this epoch. To pick out these rare sources from the millions of sources in the sky, the research team employed a clever selection technique. It used archival data to search for sources that are bright in the infrared (beyond 1 micron) but undetected in the z-band, which is in the visible light spectrum (just short of 1 micron).

Deep z-band data covering a large swath of sky was therefore critical to the study. Luckily, just such a data set is now available from the DECam Legacy Survey, or DECaLS, that is being carried out with the Dark Energy Camera on the Blanco 4-m telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. 

The research team also used infrared data sets from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, and the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope Infrared Deep Sky Survey, or UKIDSS, Large Area Survey. Spectra taken with the near-infrared spectrograph on the Gemini North Telescope were used to measure the mass of the black hole.

"DECaLS was designed from the ground up as a public project, so it is wonderful to see the data enabling exciting discoveries that are pushing the boundaries of the known universe," said Arjun Dey  of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, one of the co-leads of the DECaLS survey.

"Paradoxically, the non-detection of this source in the DECaLS data is what makes it so interesting and identifies it as a very distant object," explained David Schlegel of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the other co-lead of the DECaLS survey.

Just an Early Bloomer?

Fan speculates that the new quasar — as remarkable as it is — is "probably just an early bloomer. If it is located in a denser-than-average part of the universe, it could get an earlier start in life and grow more quickly.” 

He suspects that despite its precocious youth, J1342+0928 eventually settled down to life at a more measured pace, becoming a more typical supermassive black hole at the center of a large elliptical galaxy.

The reported result is part of a longer-term search for the earliest quasars. The research team is adopting a similar strategy in its exploration of a larger area of sky to track down and study the earliest quasars. How long will J1342+0928 remain the record holder? Only time will tell.

"The physics of how black holes form in the first place, and how they grow into these voraciously feeding behemoths, aren't very well constrained yet," Fan said.

Discoveries such as this one provide researchers with more data that help narrow down the parameters that bring these objects into existence and, ultimately, tell us about how the universe came to be and where it is headed.