LOS ANGELES — A team of European astronomers, glimpsing back in time to when the universe was just a youngster, says it has detected the most distant and earliest quasar yet.
Light from this brilliant, starlike object took nearly 13 billion years to reach Earth, meaning the quasar existed when the universe was only 770 million years old – a kid by cosmic standards. The discovery ranks as the brightest object ever found.
To scientists' surprise, the black hole powering this quasar was 2 billion times more massive than the sun. How it grew so bulky so early in the universe's history is a mystery. Black holes are known to feed on stars, gas and other matter, but their growth was always thought to be slow.
The discovery was reported in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.
Since quasars are so luminous, they guide astronomers studying the conditions of the cosmos following the Big Bang, the explosion believed to have created the universe 13.7 billion years ago. Researchers are constantly trying to outdo one another in their quest to see the universe as an infant. The deeper they peer into space, the further back in time they are looking.
The previous record holder was a quasar that dated to when the universe was 870 million years old.
The new quasar – with the tongue-twisting name ULAS J1120+0641 – was identified in images from a sky survey taken by the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope perched near the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The discovery was confirmed by other telescopes.
"It's like sifting for gold. You're looking for something shiny," said lead researcher Daniel Mortlock, an astrophysicist at Imperial College in London.
In an editorial accompanying the research, Chris Willott of the Canadian Astronomy Data Center called the quasar a "monster" that could upend current theories about the growth of black holes.
"The existence of this quasar will be giving some theorists sleepless nights," said Willott, who was not part of the discovery team.
Nature journal: www.nature.com/nature
Alicia Chang can be followed at: http://twitter.com/SciWriAlicia
(This version CORRECTS Corrects long headline to billion.)