What exactly is a quasar? Astronomers define quasars as huge active galactic nuclei that house supermassive black holes and are surrounded by vast areas of superheated luminous plasma. Often with masses ranging from millions to billions of times the mass of the Sun, quasars are the most energetic objects in the Universe. Now a team of scientists reports the discovery of a new-to-science quasar – the most distant one we’ve found yet.
"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 Xiaohui Fan, study co-author and Regents Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona. As Fan alludes, this discovery may help astronomers shed light (pun intended) on how galaxies formed in the beginning of the Universe.
The team has named the quasar J0313-1806 and being the most distant yet found, it is also the earliest documented. Having formed about 670 million years after the Big Bang, J0313-1806’s birth certificate reads about 13 billion years old. J0313-1806 has a whole list of other superlatives to add to its name: it is also 1000 times more luminous than the Milky Way (or ten trillion times as luminous as the Sun) and its supermassive black hole weighs over 1.6 billion times the mass of our Sun. Its black hole is also the earliest known to exist.
This last snippet of information is worthy of consideration, because as lead study author and NASA Hubble fellow at the University of Arizona Feige Wang explains, "Black holes created by the very first massive stars could not have grown this large in only a few hundred million years." So that begs the question, how did J0313-1806 form so quickly?
While the astronomers have yet to answer that, they note that J0313-1806 provides a unique opportunity to investigate how supermassive black holes and their host galaxies formed in the early Universe, especially given that telescope images show that the energy from the quasar appears to be large enough to impact the star formation in the host galaxy.
"This would be a great target to investigate the formation of the earliest supermassive black holes," exclaimed Feige 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."
The discovery was presented at the 237th meeting of the American Astronomical Society as part of a paper entitled, “A Luminous Quasar at Redshift 7.642.” The study will soon be published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.