The new record for the oldest and most distant supermassive black hole has astronomers questioning concepts that they thought they had a grasp on. Published in Astrophysical Journal Letters in January 2021, the team led by postdoctoral scholar Feige Wang, released their findings on J0313-1806, a supermassive black hole that is located 13 billion light-years away from Earth and sits at 1.6 billion times the mass of Earth’s Sun.
Black holes are objects in space that create a gravitational suction that pulls in all approaching particles with such force that not even light can escape. This means that black holes themselves are invisible. A black hole can be be discovered if the force at which it pulls is so strong that the swirling and suction creates an enormous amount of electromagnetic radiation that is emitted as light. This shining evidence of a black hole’s presence creates some of the brightest sights in the universe. These luminous swirls are known as quasars and they give away the otherwise hidden presence of these massive energy sinks. In the case of J0313-1806, the quasar shines 1000 times brighter than the brightest star in the Milky Way, making it 10 trillion times as bright as Earth’s Sun.
The team found that the high-velocity wind at this quasar’s center blows at 20% the speed of light, which would explain the luminosity being emitted that allowed for their discovery despite the great distance. This particular supermassive black hole seems to be so active that the team believes that it is impacting the star formation of its entire galaxy. This particular early galaxy is producing new stars 200 times as fast as our Milky Way. Combined with the truly ancient age, by studying J0313-1806, astronomers have an ideal natural laboratory to study the development of black holes in the early universe.
Not surprisingly, locating quasars at the edge of the universe is tedious work. Astronomers have to comb through billions of images to find a promising object which makes the success rate in finding a quasar around 1%, though not all are ideal research objects. Through dedicated efforts and some newly developed tools, the scientists were able to analyze massive amounts of data and found J0313-1806. The team of scientists to estimate that it formed just 670 million years after the Big Bang, thus making it 20 million years older than the previous record holding black hole. While it is thrilling to make a new discovery, the sheer size has raised some problems for previous theories about the formation of black holes.
Previously it had been believed that when huge stars were to collapse, seed black holes were created and through accumulation of particles and the merging of other black holes, these could then grow into a supermassive black hole. However, when this team calculated the growth of J0313-1806, the numbers did not fit the standard model. Even if J0313-1806 formed with the earliest known stars and grew at maximum potential pace, the quantity of seed black holes that would be required is several times greater than has previously been considered possible.
The team has hypothesized that black holes may grow faster than previously thought. They will also continue research to see if the black hole at quasar J0313-1806 was created not by the collapse of a star, but as the result of a collapse of vast amounts of primordial hydrogen gas. In either case, they note that they will need to continue searching the edges of the universe for quasars of smaller, and potentially older, black holes in order to build their understanding of how these massive objects grow. These objects are important markers in the history of the universe and as more are discovered, more theories are bound to be questioned.