Scientists have discovered a new supermassive black hole, but this one is slightly different from one’s we’ve seen before. Most importantly, it may be the oldest black hole we’ve ever seen, existing early in the history of our universe.
Robin Dienel/Carnegie Institution for Science
It’s also the most distant one ever found, and is sitting inside a bright object so far away it took 13 billion years for it to reach us.
In addition, the monster black hole is freakin huge, about 800 million times the mass of our Sun, in scientists’ estimation. What they don’t understand though, is how such a massive phenomenon could have already formed just 690 million years after the Big Bang, back when the universe was just 5 percent of its current age.
“We expected as we looked further back into time that the black holes would be smaller and smaller because they hadn’t had as much time to grow,” says Rob Simcoe, an astrophysicist at MIT and one of the co authors of the paper. “What was surprising here was that this one seemed to be fully formed even though the universe was very young at this period in time.”
But not just the black hole’s age, scientists are confused as to just how it even formed. “The moment when the first stars turned on is when our universe filled with light,” Simcoe says. The working theory is that this light escaping affected the surrounding environment and changed the properties of the matter there.
“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,” Simcoe says. And yet, this black hole looks to have been forming at the same time the lights were first coming on. “We have an estimate now, with about 1 to 2 percent accuracy, for the moment at which starlight first illuminated the universe.”