In a galaxy far, far away—12.8 billion light-years away to be more exact—is a newly-discovered supermassive black hole that weighs as much as 12 billion of our suns. The most surprising thing about the black hole, though, is not its size but its age.
Black holes grow as they age, gobbling up gas and stars that foolishly venture too close. Astronomers have found more massive black holes before, but this one is surprisingly young. Because it is so far away, we "see" the black hole as it was 12.8 billion years ago, or only about 875 million years after the Big Bang. Astronomers are puzzled how this black hole grew so huge in so short a time.
The age of this new black hole doesn't square with existing theories of black hole formation, but astronomers do offer up some alternatives. Perhaps early stars that collapsed into black holes were larger than we thought, or perhaps two black holes merged into one. National Geographic has more details about the birth of black holes.
Astronomers found this black hole by detecting light from the quasar that surrounds it. A quasar is made up of the material swirling around a black hole that has not yet fallen in; as the material accelerates, it gets hot and emits light. This quasar is the brightest—and its black hole the biggest—found in the early universe. It's 40,000 times as luminous as the entire Milky Way.
Yet it is so far away that it is but a tiny pinprick of light on our most powerful telescopes. [National Geographic, Nature]
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Top image: Zhaoyu Li/Shanghai Astronomical Observatory