It has taken 13 billion years for the light from the powerful jets of a distant object to reach us.
These jets, the most distant known source of radio emission to date, are coming from a recently discovered quasar that existed when the universe was only 780 million years old, an adolescent on the astronomical timescale.
Quasars are the bright objects found at the centre of some galaxies and are known as some of the most luminous objects in the universe. They are powered by supermassive black holes.
These insatiable black holes gobble up surrounding gas. As they chow down, the black holes release energy. This energy forms jets that emit light in radio wavelengths, streaming out bright beacons from the distant universe.
This newly found quasar has been designated as P172+18. The jets are blasting out material at nearly the speed of sound.
Given the quasar’s distance, which is 13 billion light-years away, astronomers are seeing the object as it existed in the early days of the universe, which could provide more insight about galaxy and black hole evolution.
This isn’t the most distant quasar ever found, but it’s the first with telltale jets dating back this early in the universe’s history. It’s a “radio-loud” quasar, meaning its jets are bright in radio wavelengths. Only about 10% of quasars discovered fall into this category.
The supermassive black hole feeding this quasar is 300 million times more massive than our sun.
The study was published in The Astrophysical Journal.
Clues of the early universe
“The black hole is eating up matter very rapidly, growing in mass at one of the highest rates ever observed,” said study author Chiara Mazzucchelli, astronomer at the European Southern Observatory in Chile, in a statement.
It’s likely that rapidly growing supermassive black holes like this one and the radio jets from quasars like P172+18, are related. The jets themselves could actually disturb gas that’s around the black hole and cause more of it to drop inside. This could help astronomers understand how some black holes from the early universe were able to grow so quickly.
“I find it very exciting to discover ‘new’ black holes for the first time, and to provide one more building block to understand the primordial Universe, where we come from, and ultimately ourselves,” Mazzucchelli said.
“Jets have a role in regulating star formation and the growth of their host galaxies, so this discovery is valuable to understanding these processes in the early universe,” said study author Chris Carilli, chief scientist at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, in a statement. “The jets at that time also propelled atoms and magnetic fields into what had been pristine space between the galaxies.”
Multiple telescopes and observatories, including the Magellan Telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (also in Chile), the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array in New Mexico and the Keck Observatory in Hawaii all contributed to the discovery of the quasar and its jets.
Astronomers can use these quasars to learn more about objects closer to Earth as well because they act like beacons, the researchers said.
This quasar could be just the first of many that astronomers may find in the distant universe.
“This discovery makes me optimistic and I believe — and hope — that the distance record will be broken soon,” said study author Eduardo Bañados, astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, in a statement.