Monster Black Hole Found In The Early Universe

by | Jun 29, 2020 | Cosmology, Daily Space, Quasar, Supermassive Black Holes | 0 comments

IMAGE: An artist’s impression of the quasar Pōniuāʻena. CREDIT: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/P. Marenfeld

In a new paper accepted to Astrophysical Journal Letters, a team with first author Jinyi Yang has announced the discovery of another super distant quasar, this one seen 700 million years after the Big Bang. It is the second farthest and is remarkably larger. Its central supermassive black hole is 1.5 billion solar masses, making it twice the size of the 2017 discovery. For something to be this big this early in the history of the universe, the team believes that a 10,000 solar mass black hole needed to have formed and been available to seed the quasar’s growth just 100 million years after the Big Bang. 

This is a much larger black hole then we had been thinking could already exist at that point, and it would have needed to form through the singular collapse of a massive cloud of gas. How something this big forms that fast is going to present new challenges: heat released during gas collapse should throttle down the collapse, all else being equal, so there must be mechanisms that enable the collapse somehow, or perhaps they formed in a wholly different way. 

While this discovery raises a lot of questions about supermassive black hole formation, it also provides some answers on the age of reionization. According to the paper on this discovery, the neutral gas fraction was about 40% at this quasar’s time, and the quasar’s host galaxy was forming a remarkable 210 solar masses worth of stars per year. This is giving us an understanding of the patchy nature of the universe’s reionization and is showing us just how frenetic early star formation actually was. 

Studying this second-most-distant quasar was non-trivial and required using all the most massive telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, including the KeckGemini, and UKIRT telescopes. As part of new efforts to better bring together Hawaii’s indigenous peoples, their culture, and modern astronomy, a group of thirty teachers got to name the object. They came up with the name Poniua‘ena, which means “unseen spinning source of creation, surrounded with brilliance” in the Hawaiian language. These were Hawaiian language immersion school teachers taking part in the Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii’s A Hua He Inoa program. 

These kinds of surprising details in how our universe was able to rapidly form objects inform how we have to look at structure formation and are reminders that while we have a big picture understanding of our universe, there are a lot of gaps in our understanding, and while we have given some of the gaps cool names like dark matter, they are nonetheless massive missing pieces of the puzzle.

More Information

The University of Arizona press release 

NOIRLab press release 

W.M. Keck Observatory press release 

The Current news article (UC Santa Barbara)

“Poniua‘ena: A Luminous z = 7.5 Quasar Hosting a 1.5 Billion Solar Mass Black Hole,” Jinyi Yang et al., 2020, Astrophysical Journal Letters (Preprint on arxiv.org)

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