Giant Black Hole Formed Puzzlingly Fast At Dawn Of Cosmos

Friday, August 25, 2023
by Daniel Clery

Quasar 40 million times the Sun’s mass challenges theorists

Among the most luminous objects in the cosmos, quasars are powered by supermassive black holes in the center of galaxies, which suck in matter so voraciously that it becomes white hot from friction and glows brightly enough to be seen across the universe. Astronomers thought the black holes formed stepwise within early galaxies, as giant stars collapsed and merged, but quasars detected from when the universe was less than 1 billion years old have challenged the idea. “We were already concerned,” says Anna-Christina Eilers of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The new one, dubbed UHZ-1, which blazed when the universe was less than 450 million years old, has made that scenario untenable.

UHZ-1 was first seen as a tiny speck of light in an image made by JWST, NASA’s new infrared space telescope, of a megacluster of galaxies residing 4 billion light-years from Earth. The gravity of the giant cluster bends light like a giant lens, magnifying more distant objects behind it and making them easier to study. A few of the magnified dots appeared to be galaxies from when the universe was less than half a billion years old—among the earliest ever seen.

To see whether any of those galaxy candidates harbored quasars, observers viewed the area with another NASA space observatory, Chandra, which can detect the x-rays that are the most reliable signature of quasars. “One object stood out,” says team member Andy Goulding of Princeton University. “It was booming” in x-rays.

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