A Black Hole of a Beginning

Scientists have discovered a monstrous black hole that existed only 875 million years after the beginning of time, about six percent into the universe’s total lifespan.

An artist's conception of a quasar and supermassive black hole. (Zhaoyu Li/ Shanghai Astronomical Observatory)

An artist’s conception of a quasar and supermassive black hole. (Zhaoyu Li/ Shanghai Astronomical Observatory)

The find is significant not only due to the size of the black hole, which weighs as much as 12 billion suns, but also because black holes are generally thought to grow slowly over time as they absorb neighboring gas and sometimes stars.

The black hole was discovered by a team of astronomers led by Xue-Bing Wu of China’s Peking University. They used telescopes in Arizona, Hawaii, Chile and China to find a quasar, a luminous object that exerts light and energy as it tries to squeeze into the black hole. The newly discovered object is around 40,000 times as bright as the Milky Way galaxy. The black hole itself, of course, emits no light.

“This is the biggest monster we’ve ever detected in terms of luminosity,” said Avi Loeb, chair of Harvard’s astronomy department, who was not involved in the study.

Not all black holes are surrounded by heated gas, but all galaxies, including the Milky Way, have a black hole at their core.

“How could we have this massive black hole when the universe was so young?” Wu said. “We don’t currently have a satisfactory theory to explain it.”

Wu said that the scientists are using light from the quasar to find other space objects.

“Just like a lighthouse sitting in a dark, distant universe, it gives us a chance to see things between our own planet and the black hole by illuminating them,” he said. “It provides a unique chance to understand things between the distant galaxy and ours.”

The study was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.



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