Most distant quasar may help us solve how enormous black holes form

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Astronomers have spotted the most distant quasar ever seen

NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva

Astronomers have discovered the most distant quasar we’ve ever seen. At about 13 billion light years away from Earth, it is showing us how the first supermassive black holes affected their galaxies.

Quasars are extremely bright objects at the centres of some galaxies that consist of a supermassive black hole surrounded by a disc of hot plasma. This quasar, called J0313-1806, was spotted by astronomers using several powerful observatories. Feige Wang at the University of Arizona presented this work at a virtual meeting of the American Astronomical Society on 12 January.

J0313-1806 is 20 million light years further away than the previous record-holder and its supermassive black hole is twice as massive: it is about 1.6 billion times as massive as the sun. “The existence of such a massive supermassive black hole…only 600 million years after the big bang really puts pressure on our understanding of the formation of supermassive black holes,” Wang said.

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The researchers calculated that in order for the black hole to grow so large, it could not have formed from a collapsed star like smaller black holes do. Instead, it must have started out with a “seed” black hole more than 10,000 times as massive as the sun, which could have been formed as a huge amount of gas collapsed under its own gravity.

The quasar is also blasting out superheated gas that is moving at one fifth of the speed of light. This quasar wind may eventually slow down star formation in its host galaxy, which currently appears to be producing new stars at a rate about 200 times as fast as the Milky Way despite being about 10 times smaller.

Further observations with the next generation of enormous telescopes, including NASA’s planned James Webb Space Telescope, should help shed more light on how quasars like this formed and how they affect their host galaxies, Wang said.

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