Supermassive Black Hole Lurking at Edge of the Universe is One of Biggest Ever Detected–and ‘Completely Unexpected’

​This system consists of a pair of galaxies, dubbed IC 694 and NGC 3690, which made a close pass some 700 million years ago. As a result of this interaction, the system underwent a fierce burst of star formation. In the last fifteen years or so six supernovae have popped off in the outer reaches of the galaxy, making this system a distinguished supernova factory. Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration and A. Evans (University of Virginia, Charlottesville/NRAO/Stony Brook University) – CC BY 4.0

A supermassive black hole discovered at the edge of the universe is one of the biggest ever detected, containing over a billion solar masses worth of interstellar dust and forming stars 1,000 times faster than our own Milky Way.

The cosmic colossus lies at the center of an extreme galaxy and dates back more than 13 billion years—just 750 million years after the Big Bang.

“This is something others have been predicting for a few years now, and it’s really nice to see the first direct observational evidence supporting this scenario,” said lead author Dr. Ryan Endsley, of The University of Texas at Austin.

“These results suggest very early supermassive black holes were often heavily obscured by dust, perhaps as a consequence of the intense star formation activity in their host galaxies.

The discovery, described online in the Royal Astronomical Society, could help answer one of the biggest mysteries in astronomy: how supermassive black holes in space evolved. It may even be a ‘missing link’ between galaxies that produce lots of stars like our Sun and the first supermassive black holes.

The American team made the discovery using data collected by ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter Array), a radio observatory in the Chilean Andes Mountains.

The galaxy, nicknamed COS-87259, was shining bright from the intense burst of star formation. The primordial black hole is heavily enshrouded by cosmic ‘dust’, causing nearly all of its light to be emitted in the mid-infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Its active galactic nucleus is generating a strong jet of material moving close to the speed of light.

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Black holes that have masses millions-to-billions of times greater than our own Sun, are sitting at the center of nearly every galaxy.

The pull of gravity is so strong that even light can’t escape it. This is what makes them invisible.

Several have been detected that were created when the universe was very young. Their light takes so long to reach us that we see them as they existed back in the distant past—in this case, approximately five percent of the current age of the universe.

What is particularly astonishing about the new black hole is it was identified over a relatively small patch of the sky. This suggests there could be thousands of similar black holes in the very early universe, which was completely unexpected from previous data.

The only other class of supermassive black holes we knew about in the very early universe are quasars, which are powered by black holes that give off large amounts of light and energy, relatively unobscured by cosmic dust.

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They are extremely rare, with only a few located over the full sky.

“While nobody expected to find this kind of object in the very early Universe, its discovery takes a step towards building a much better understanding of how billion solar mass black holes were able to form so early on in the lifetime of the Universe, as well how the most massive galaxies first evolved,” added Dr. Endsley.