Astronomers Have Just Discovered The Brightest Quasar In The Early Universe

The quasar is 600 trillion times brighter than the sun.

This artist’s impression shows how J043947.08+163415.7, a very distant quasar powered by a supermassive black hole, may look close up.
ESA / Hubble, NASA, M. Kornmesser (CC BY 4.0)

The quasar is 600 trillion times brighter than the sun.

In an incredible discovery, astronomers have spotted the brightest quasar to ever be seen in the early universe. Dubbed J043947.08+163415.7, this fantastic object lit up the cosmos at a time when the universe was less than 1-billion-years-old, shining with the blaze of 600 trillion suns, reports the Hubble Space Telescope website.

Located 12.8 billion light-years away, the ancient quasar was imaged with the help of several world-class telescopes in Hawaii, including the Gemini Observatory, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), the United Kingdom Infra-Red Telescope (UKIRT), the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS1) at Haleakala Observatory, and the W.M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea, Hawaii Island. However, it was Hubble that finally detected the incandescent object after picking up a beacon from the quasar via an effect called gravitational lensing.

This makes J043947.08+163415.7 the brightest gravitationally lensed object ever observed in the early universe — a title that the quasar is bound to hold on to for quite some time, notes the W.M. Keck Observatory.

“That’s something we have been looking for a long time,” said team leader Xiaohui Fan, an astronomer at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “We don’t expect to find many quasars brighter than that in the whole observable universe!”

As the Inquisitr previously reported, quasars are the brightest objects in the entire universe and represent extremely luminous and active objects powered by supermassive black holes.

“Quasars are the extremely bright nuclei of active galaxies,” explains the Hubble website.

“The powerful glow of a quasar is created by a supermassive black hole, which is surrounded by an accretion disk. Gas falling toward the black hole releases incredible amounts of energy, which can be observed over all wavelengths.”

This particular quasar, the brightest to ever be spotted in the early days of the universe, is 600 trillion times brighter than the sun and hosts a supermassive black hole several hundred million times more massive than our sun.

The quasar existed during a transitional period in the universe’s evolution, called reionization, when the universe went back to being ionized plasma once the light coming from young galaxies and quasars started to reheat the obscuring hydrogen that cooled off 400,000 years after the Big Bang.

According to HubbleSite.org, astronomers have been on the hunt for such a magnificent object in the distant, early universe for more than two decades. The newfound quasar was revealed through sheer serendipity by the presence of a dim galaxy found between Earth and J043947.08+163415.7. This galaxy aligned with the quasar and acted as a gravitational lens, magnifying the object’s light and unveiling its whereabouts.

Thanks to this effect of the galaxy’s gravitational field — which warped space, bending the light from the distant quasar and amplifying it by a factor of 50 — Hubble was able to spot the quasar, which would have otherwise remained hidden.

“This detection is a surprising and major discovery; for decades we thought that these lensed quasars in the early universe should be very common, but this is the first of its kind that we have found,” said Fabio Pacucci, a postdoctoral associate at Yale University who observed the quasar with Fan at Keck Observatory.

Even with the help of gravitational lensing, the ancient quasar was difficult to see. This is because J043947.08+163415.7 and the galaxy that helped uncover it appear so compact that it’s a challenge to tell them apart.

“It’s a hard system to photograph because it turns out to be so compact, which requires the sharpest view from Hubble,” said Fan.

Although the faint galaxy in the foreground made the quasar appear three times larger and 50 times brighter, Hubble was the only telescope to finally reveal that the image of J043947.08+163415.7 was actually split into three components due to gravitational lensing.

Hubble's view of the distant quasar J043947.08+163415.7.
Hubble’s view of the distant quasar J043947.08+163415.7. NASA, ESA, X. Fan (University of Arizona) (CC BY 4.0)

The video below, shared by the Hubble website, offers a detailed depiction of the process of gravitational lensing that ultimately led to the discovery of the brightest quasar in the early universe.

Another interesting thing about the newly discovered quasar is that it seems to be churning out stars at an incredibly fast rate. The object’s supermassive black hole — which lies at the heart of a young galaxy in the throes of formation — is very active, gathering large quantities of material in its accretion disk. This behavior seems to be fueling star formation around the black hole, producing around 10,000 stars per year.

Commenting on the data, team member Fabian Walter of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany chimed in on the importance of this discovery.

“Its properties and its distance make it a prime candidate to investigate the evolution of distant quasars and the role supermassive black holes in their centers had on star formation.”

This amazing find is detailed in a study published yesterday in Astrophysical Journal Letters. The team that made the discovery is currently studying the quasar with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in an effort to identify the chemical composition and temperatures of intergalactic gas in the early universe.

Going forward, the scientists plan to observe J043947.08+163415.7 with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array — and eventually with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in order to peer within 150 light-years of its black hole and see how its gravity influences gas motion and star formation around it.