In a first, astronomers have spotted an object believed to be the oldest known quasar in the universe, designated J0313-1806. The distinct quasar has a supermassive black hole that's over 13 billion years old. It's so old and massive that scientists have no idea how it exactly formed.
J0313-1806 is 13.03 billion light-years away to be exact. That means we're seeing this object like it was just 670 million years after the Big Bang, and it's still massive.
Astronomers predict that J0313-1806 has around 1.6 billion solar masses as it ages. That's not out-of-line for a supermassive black hole anywhere in the universe, but they've sucked up matter longer and grew bigger. J0313-1806 was not meant to have had time to develop too big in the early universe.
The first quasars were observed in the mid-20th century, but it wasn't until decades later that we started to understand what these bodies were. A quasar is an active celestial nucleus in which the supermassive black hole that anchors the galaxy draws to form a gaseous accretion disk.
All this material, colliding as it spirals through the black hole, emits a stream of electromagnetic energy that serves as the signature of these objects. J0313-1806, for example, shines a thousand times brighter than our whole galaxy.
The study puts forward a hypothesis to understand the origin of this perplexing quasar, known as the direct collapse scenario. In this model, it wasn't a star collapsing that created the supermassive black hole. Instead, a massive cloud of cold hydrogen gas exploded inward to create a much larger black hole than any stellar source could make. This might explain why astronomers find so many enormous black holes in the early universe.
The galaxy hosting J0313-1806 is experiencing a burst of star formation, producing new stars 200 times faster than the Milky Way. The convergence of this strong star formation, the luminous quasar, and the high-speed outflow make J0313-1806 and its host galaxy a candidate model for understanding the formation of supermassive black holes and their host galaxies in the early universe. If only current tech can handle it.
Unfortunately, J0313-1806 is so far away that we cannot gather much more data with the current technology. However, the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope could be relatively reliable for image objects such as J0313-1806. After several years of delays, NASA intends to launch the Webb telescope at the end of 2021.