Most distant quasar in universe found

Space scientists have discovered a monster black hole at a record distance from the Earth. The cosmic giant, containing as much matter as two billion stars like the Sun, lies 13 billion light years away.

NASA artist’s impression of a quasar

It is the powerhouse inside a brilliant type of galaxy called a quasar. Astronomers are looking back in time to see it as it was when the universe was only 770 million years old – less than a 20th of its age today. It is thought to be 100 million years younger than the previous most distant quasar/black hole found in space.

The quasar, which in astro jargon has a red shift of 7.1 to indicate its vast distance, is the brightest object yet found from a time when the universe was in its infancy. British astronomers from Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Nottingham and Liverpool were part of the international team led by the Astrophysics Group at Imperial College London that found it.

Labelled ULAS J1120+0641, it was first detected using the UK Infra-Red Telescope (UKIRT) on Hawaii as part of the UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey. Further observations using the European Very Large Telescope in Chile and the Gemini North Telescope on Hawaii confirmed its incredible distance.

Because the quasar was so bright, scientists were able to analyse its light using a spectrometer, revealing the object’s physical make-up.

It told them the size of the supermassive black hole, leaving them puzzled as to how it could be so massive at such an early stage. Theories suggest it should have been able to gobble up only a quarter as much matter as it has.

Dr Simon Dye, of Nottingham University, said: “Objects that lie at such large distance are almost impossible to find in visible-light surveys because their light is stretched by the expansion of the universe. This means that by the time their light gets to Earth, most of it ends up in the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

“It took us five years to find this object. We were looking for a quasar with a redshift higher than 6.5. Finding one this far away, at a redshift higher than 7, was an exciting surprise. This quasar provides a unique opportunity to explore a 100 million year window of the cosmos that was previously out of reach.”

Update: Gamma-ray bursts have been detected at distances greater than the new quasar, as UK expert in this field Dr Phil Evans, of Leicester University, has kindly tweeted me to point out.

Reporter: Paul Sutherland

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