Wednesday | December 13, 2017
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Unexpected discovery: Supermassive black hole the most distant ever detected

The discovery of a supermassive black hole more than 13 billion light years away is raising more questions about the early universe.

The object, surrounded by a bright disc of gas and dust known as a quasar, is the most distant black hole to be found, said Tom Geballe, an astronomer at Gemini Observatory. But what’s of particular note is its mass, which the Gemini telescope atop Maunakea confirmed is 800 million times that of our sun.

Geballe said that makes it 200 times more massive than the black hole at the center of our galaxy, prompting the question: How did it get so big so fast?

“We’re talking 690 million years” after the Big Bang, said Gemini spokesman Peter Michaud. “That’s not a lot of time for stuff to happen. … That’s why it’s such a mystery.”

Geballe said the black hole existed in a period when the universe was emerging from its dark ages and the first stars and galaxies formed. The earliest known galaxy discovered by the Hubble space telescope existed 400 million years after the Big Bang, according to NASA’s website.

Black holes are the remnants of collapsed stars, with gravity so strong that light itself can’t escape.

Geballe, who was not part of the research team, said finding out why such massive black holes existed then will help astronomers understand how the cosmos evolved.

“I don’t think 10 or 15 years ago anybody would expect there to be such a massive black hole that early in the universe,” Geballe said. “We think we know how black holes form and how they eat material. But it’s pretty hard to get that kind of a mass that early in the universe.”

Several ground-based observatories, including the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope on Maunakea, made the initial discovery of the black hole, while the 8-meter Gemini telescope followed up by measuring the mass with its near-infrared spectrograph.

Geballe said that was possible because of Maunakea’s superb observing conditions.

“It just speaks to the power of Maunakea and the value of having large telescopes on it,” he said.

Geballe said the research team led by Eduardo Banados, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science, initially tried to measure the black hole’s mass with a telescope in Arizona, but atmospheric conditions proved too difficult.

A quasar that existed 770 million years after the Big Bang was previously thought to be the most distant object of its kind, according to a 2011 article on Space.com. Its black hole was even larger at 2 billion solar masses.

The Gemini telescope also helped confirm that discovery, according to the article.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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