A Most Distant Signal: Earliest Supermassive Black Hole and Quasar in the Universe Discovered

Quasar J0313-1806

Quasars are the most energetic objects in the universe, which is why astronomers can observe them from so far away. Credit: NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva

Nearly every galaxy hosts a monster at its center — a supermassive black hole millions to billions times the size of the Sun. While there’s still much to learn about these objects, many scientists believe they are crucial to the formation and structure of galaxies. What’s more, some of these black holes are particularly active, whipping up stars, dust and gas into glowing accretion disks emitting powerful radiation into the cosmos as they consume matter around them. These quasars are some of the most distant objects that astronomers can see, and there is now a new record for the farthest one ever observed.

A team of scientists, led by former UC Santa Barbara postdoctoral scholar Feige Wang and including Professor Joe Hennawi and current postdoc Riccardo Nanni, announced the discovery of J0313-1806, the most distant quasar discovered to date. Seen as it would have appeared more than 13 billion years ago, this fully formed distant quasar is also the earliest yet discovered, providing astronomers insight into the formation of massive galaxies in the early universe. The team’s findings were released at the January 2021 meeting of the American Astronomical Society and published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Quasar Spot

The quasar appears as little more than a spot in the researchers’ data. Credit: Feige Wang et al.

Quasars are the most energetic objects in the universe. They occur when gas in the superheated accretion disk around a supermassive black hole is inexorably drawn inwards, shedding energy across the electromagnetic spectrum. This releases enormous amounts of electromagnetic radiation, with the most massive examples easily outshining entire galaxies.

Quasar J0313-1806 lies 13 billion light years away, and existed a mere 690 million years after the Big Bang. It is powered by the earliest known supermassive black hole, which, despite its early formation, still weighs in at more than 1.6 billion times the mass of the Sun. Indeed, J0313-1806 outshines the modern Milky Way by a factor of 1,000.

Riccardo Nanni

Photo of Riccardo Nanni. Credit: UC Santa Barbara

“The most distant quasars are crucial for understanding how the earliest black holes formed and for understanding cosmic reionization — the last major phase transition of our universe,” said co-author Xiaohui Fan, a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona.

The presence of such a massive black hole so early in the universe’s history challenges theories of black hole formation. As lead author Wang, now a NASA Hubble fellow at the University of Arizona, explains: Black holes created by the very first massive stars could not have grown this large in only a few hundred million years.”

The team first detected J0313-1806 after combing through data from large area digital sky surveys. Crucial to the characterization of the new quasar was a high-quality spectrum obtained at the W. M. Keck Observatory: “Through University of California Observatories, we have privileged access to the Keck telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea, which allowed us to obtain high quality data on this object shortly after it was confirmed to be a quasar at other telescopes,” Hennawi said.

As well as weighing the monster black hole, the Keck Observatory observations uncovered an exceptionally fast outflow emanating from the quasar in the form of a high-velocity wind traveling at 20% of the speed of light. “The energy released by such an extreme high-velocity outflow is large enough to impact the star formation in the entire quasar host galaxy,” said Jinyi Yang, of Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona.

Joseph Hennawi

Joseph Hennawi. Credit: UC Santa Barbara

The early galaxy hosting the quasar is undergoing a surge of star formation, producing new stars 200 times faster than the modern-day Milky Way. The system is the earliest known example of a quasar sculpting the growth of its host galaxy. The combination of this intense star formation, the luminous quasar and the high-velocity outflow make J0313-1806 and its host galaxy a promising natural laboratory for understanding the growth of supermassive black holes and their host galaxies in the early universe.

“This would be a great target to investigate the formation of the earliest supermassive black holes,” concluded Wang. “We also hope to learn more about the effect of quasar outflows on their host galaxy — as well as to learn how the most massive galaxies formed in the early universe.”

Finding these distant quasars requires incredibly painstaking work, since they are like needles in a haystack. Astronomers mine digital images of billions of celestial objects in order to find promising quasar candidates. “The current success rate for finding these objects is around 1%. You have to kiss a lot frogs before finding your prince,” remarked Hennawi.

Hennawi, Wang and Nanni are developing machine learning tools to analyze this big data and make the process of finding distant quasars more efficient. “In the coming years the European Space Agency’s Euclid satellite and NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will enable us to find perhaps a hundred quasars at this distance, or farther,” Hennawi said. “With a large statistical sample of these objects we will be able to construct a precise timeline of the reionization epoch as well as shed more light on how these massive black holes formed.”

For more information on this study:

Reference: “A Luminous Quasar at Redshift 7.642” by Feige Wang, Jinyi Yang, Xiaohui Fan, Joseph F. Hennawi, Aaron J. Barth, Eduardo Banados, Fuyan Bian, Konstantina Boutsia, Thomas Connor, Frederick B. Davies, Roberto Decarli, Anna-Christina Eilers, Emanuele Paolo Farina, Richard Green, Linhua Jiang, Jiang-Tao Li, Chiara Mazzucchelli, Riccardo Nanni, Jan-Torge Schindler, Bram Venemans, Fabian Walter, Xue-Bing Wu and Minghao Yue, 14 January 2021, Astrophyiscal Journal Letters.
DOI: 10.3847/2041-8213/abd8c6

7 Comments on "A Most Distant Signal: Earliest Supermassive Black Hole and Quasar in the Universe Discovered"

  1. What is the temperature of a Black Hole, since they are allegedly at the center of most galaxies and not a giant Neutroid?

    Are Black Holes Hot or Cold ?

    A) They are very cold, about 1 billionth of a kelvin and should be nearly motionless as a result .

    Quote: ” nothing – not even light -( massless photon, even heat energy ) can escape from inside that region to the wider universe …of a Black Hole …..It is unknown what exactly happens to the mass inside a black hole. It is possible that a gravitational singularity forms at the center ” Wikipedia

    I am not buying it…the black hole theory..the universe it too unstable and with freezing cold and near motionless black holes are the center of galaxies the universe could not expand as it is.

    • Torbjörn Larsson | February 14, 2021 at 10:20 am | Reply

      Black holes at center of galaxies exist – we have imaged their shadows [“Event Horizon Telescope” @ Wikipedia]. Such a black hole would have a mass about 1/1000 of the galaxy itself and its gravitational reach of a few light years to compare with the galaxy radius of 100s of 1000s of light years. Black holes do not deform the galaxy that way, so how should they deform the expansion of the universe?

      Even the much more massive galaxies with their dark matter halos do not do much against the expansion. The cohesive groups are on the order of the Local Group of galaxies or a volume ~ 10 million light years in diameter, while the universe is homogeneous and isotropic on scales larger than the so called baryonic acoustic oscillations (of the early universe structure formation) or distances of ~ 100 million light years. Hence while the universe expands the galaxies local group will eventually be the only matter inside the future observable universe.

      Black holes are thermally cold, but their local environment – see above – is gravitationally “hot” close to such a mass. That’s why their accretion disks emit x-rays, and that is why we can image their shadow – see the image reference above.

      Astronomy has no term ‘neutroids’!?

      • Torbjörn Larsson | February 14, 2021 at 10:31 am | Reply

        I should also note that the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics went to black holes. The black hole shadow image was taken as sufficient evidence to convince even the cautious Nobel Prize Committee [see nobelprizeDOTorg].

        The prize went not to that, but was hared between the two astronomers that discovered the Milky Way supermassive black hole (which the Event Horizon Telescope still tries to image robustly – it is smaller and so flicker much faster) and the theorist that in the 60s convinced physicists that not only would the exotic objects form but under gravitational collapse of burned out stars they *must* form. (Unless a supernova rips the star apart in the process. Supernovas are hard to get to work in models – you need 3D and model turbulence properly – just because the easy end state is a spherical symmetric black hole.)

  2. … as I was reading some book about physics one strange idea sprang after.
    This is a plot>
    During the moments of creation some particles were not formed yet, and in order for them to create the forces, particles need to exist.
    Yeah, the gravity and its missing graviton. However, if the gravity is a thing of curved space time, then it doesn’t need a particle to carry the force, the virtual one or non virtual, any way. In another words, gravity could have been there forever, and only big splash makes sense…

  3. Could it possibly be that a black hole attracts and condenses all matter to a point where it is so compact and so heavy it eventually explodes into another big bang? Could that explosion go forwardinto a dimension we cannot “see”/”experience”? Is it possible there are infinate numbers of dimensions? It might mimic on a macro level the process of breathing in and breathing out on a micro level.

  4. David Robertson | February 18, 2021 at 11:49 pm | Reply

    Is it possible that black holes continue to build energy until they finally release it to form a new galaxy?

  5. It is a nice article but it is even nicer to find out that the project is jointly done by many Chinese scientists. Brother Joe with so many years in politics show wake up to the reality there is alot more you can do with the Chinese rather than just on the fault finding mission

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