Scientists have discovered the earliest known celestial body in the universe, a quasar formed billion of years ago that shines 1000 times brighter than the entire Milky Way galaxy.
In a dark and distant corner of space 13.03 billion light-years from Earth, astronomers have discovered a brilliantly luminous quasar, the most distant and therefore earliest quasar yet found.
The quasar that scientists observe from Earth dates back to 670 million years after the Big Bang event that happened when the universe was only five per cent its current age – which is 13.8 billion years.
In other words, scientists seeing the quasar today are actually seeing it as it was more than 13.6 billion years ago.
To give some idea of how big this object is, scientists say the quasar hosts a vast black hole that is equivalent to the combined mass of 1.6 billion suns.
The quasar, now formally named as J0313-1806, was announced on January 12 at a virtual meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
The discovery offers astrophysicists and astronomers a rare glimpse into how massive galaxies formed during the beginning of the universe.
Quasars are incredibly bright astronomical objects that are found in the centres of some galaxies and powered by gas spiralling at high velocity into an extremely large black hole.
The brightest quasars outshine all of the stars in the galaxies where they reside, which makes them visible at distances of billions of light-years.
And quasars are BRIGHT. In fact, J0313-1806 shines 1,000 times brighter than the entire Milky Way galaxy.
In addition to being the most distant – and theoretically earliest with an estimated age of around 13.6 billion years – this quasar is the first of its kind to show evidence of an outflowing wind of super-heated gas escaping from the surroundings of the black hole. This wind travels at a fifth of the speed of light.
Scientists believe quasars originate from huge black holes devouring the surrounding matter, such as gas or even entire stars.
This results in a maelstrom of superheated material known as an “accretion disk” that swirls around the black hole. These actions involve enormous amounts of energy, which combine to make quasars are among the brightest light sources in the cosmos, often outshining their host galaxies.
Although J0313-1806 is only 20 million light-years farther away than the previous record holder, the new quasar contains a “supermassive” black hole that is twice as heavy.
This fact challenges accepted theories about how black holes are created. Black holes created by the very first massive stars “could not have grown this large in only a few hundred million years”, say the scientists who found the quasar.
Which implies that further scientific observation may reveal even more of the universe’s deepest and most mysterious creation secrets.
“This is the earliest evidence of how a supermassive black hole is affecting its host galaxy around it,” says Feige Wang, a Hubble Fellow astronomer at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory and leader of the team that made the discovery.
“From observations of less distant galaxies, we know that this has to happen, but we have never seen it happening so early in the universe.”