An impossibly large and ancient black hole has been detected

Quasars as pictured in this artist’s concept. Image: M. Kornmesser

Astronomers have discovered a huge and ancient black hole which powered the brightest object early in the universe.

Its mass is 12 billion times that of the Sun, and it lives at the centre of a quasar which pumped out a million billion times the energy of our Sun.

Fuyan Bian, from the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Australian National University (ANU), says the discovery challenges theories of how black holes form and grow.

“Forming such a large black hole so quickly is hard to interpret with current theories,” he says.

A quasar is an extremely bright cloud of material in the process of being sucked into a black hole. As the material accelerates towards the black hole it heats up, emitting light which pushes away material falling behind it.

This process, known as radiation pressure, is thought to limit the growth rate of black holes

“However this black hole at the centre of the quasar gained enormous mass in a short period of time,” Dr Bian says.

The team led by Xue-Bing Wu at Peking University, China, selected the quasar from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey of more than 500 million objects in the northern skies because of its distinctive red colour. They then followed up with three other telescopes to study the object in detail.

Dr Bian expects more surprising objects will be discovered during the Skymapper survey of the southern skies now being run by the ANU.

The latest find is outlined in the journal Nature.

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