Astronomers have discovered and studied to great detail the most distant source of radio emissions ever found. Called a "radio-loud" quasar — which is a blindingly bright object with colossal jets emitting at radio wavelengths — so distant that its light took 13 billion years to reach Earth, according to a recent study published in the Astrophysical Journal.
Thirteen billion years ago, the big bang had just unfolded — which means studying this quasar will help us understand the dawn of the universe.
Most distant 'loud' quasar ever found sheds light on the dawn of the universe
Quasars are incredibly bright astrophysical objects that exist in the center of some galaxies — and gain their immense power from supermassive black holes at their center. As the black hole swallows gigantic volumes of surrounding gas, it releases energy at levels astronomers can spot from far, far away.
The recently-discovered quasar — called P172+18 — is so far away that its light traveled through the depths of intergalactic space for 13 billion years before reaching us. In other words, we're seeing it as it was when the universe was only 780 million years old — less than one-fifth of the Earth's present-day age. More distant quasars have been discovered in the past, but this one is the first one "loud" enough for astronomers to identify quasars' signature radio jets from a time this early in the history of the universe.
This is a significant and rare find because only roughly 10% of quasars — which astronomers categorize as "radio-loud" — have jets, which shine at maddeningly bright radio frequencies.
The supermassive black hole powering P172+18 is roughly 300 million times more massive than the sun — and it's swallowing gas at a concerning rate. "The black hole is eating up matter very rapidly, growing in mass at one of the highest rates ever observed," said Chiara Mazzucchelli, an astronomer and fellow at ESO in Chile, who also led the discovery with Eduardo Bañados of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, according to a blog post shared on the ESO's website.
New quasar could reveal why black holes can grow to supermassive sizes so rapidly
Astronomers suspect there's a link between the rapid growth of supermassive black holes and the incredibly powerful radio jets observed in quasars like P172+18. These jets might disturb the gas surrounding the black hole — causing the gas to fall into the event horizon at an increased rate.
This means studying radio-loud quasars will shed light on how black holes grew to supermassive sizes so rapidly, following the Big Bang.
"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," said Mazzucchelli, in the ESO Blog post.
The quasar — P172+18 — was initially recognized as a very distant one after its initial classification as a radio source via the Magellan Telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile — by Mazzucchelli and Bañados. "As soon as we got the data, we inspected it by eye, and we knew immediately that we had discovered the most distant radio-loud quasar known so far," said Bañados.
Next-farthest 'loud' quasar will peer even deeper into the early universe
Sadly, because of the short observation time, the research team lacked sufficient time to evaluate the new object in exhaustive detail. Several observations via other telescopes followed the team's discovery — including the X-shooter instrument equipped on the ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) — which enabled the researchers to execute a more extensive analysis of the quasar's characteristics.
These included how fast the black hole is eating matter from its surrounding environment, and the current (13 billion years ago) mass of the black hole. Additional telescopes involved in the study include the Keck Telescope in the U.S., and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's VLA.
Most enticing is the team's suspicion of even more distant radio-loud quasars on the horizon of discovery. "This discovery makes me optimistic and I believe — and hope — that the distance record will be broken soon," added Bañados in the press release. When we find the next-farthest radio-loud quasar, we could be peering into the most nascent conditions of the universe.
This was a breaking story and was regularly updated as new information became available.