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Scientists spot really, really big black hole

More energy than 20 trillion suns

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The discovery of a 12.7bn light-year distant supermassive black hole has challenged astronomers' understanding of star and galaxy formation. NASA's Chandra X-Ray observatory spotted the object, which is generating energy at the rate of twenty trillion suns, at the heart of a quasar formed less than a billion years after the big bang.

Astronomers Daniel Schwartz and Shanil Virani of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics discovered the quasar, known as SDSSp J1306. They found that its X-ray spectrum is a near perfect match to nearer, and hence older (or at least longer lived) quasars. Meanwhile, optical measurements suggest the quasar is a billion times more massive than our sun. Their results have been published in The Astrophysical Journal.

This similarity between the young and old supermassive black holes means that the objects form much earlier in the universe's history than previously imagined. By way of explanation, scientists suggest that the super massive black holes might have formed from millions of smaller black holes. These smaller objects, left over from the collapses of young, very massive stars gradually merged, creating a billion solar mass black hole at the centre of the galaxy.

"[The] results seem to indicate that the way supermassive black holes produce X-rays has remained essentially the same from a very early date in the Universe," said Schwartz. "This implies that the central black hole engine in a massive galaxy was formed very soon after the big bang."

This is the second so-called "early epoch" supermassive blackhole to be discovered. In August this year scientists from the UK and from Caltech reported discovering a similar quasar at a distance of 12.8bn light years using the XMM-Newton X-ray satellite. They found essentially the same result for the X-ray spectrum as the Smithsonian scientists have just announced.

Astronomers now plan to use the Chandra X-ray observatory to hunt for quasars even further back in the history of the universe. ®

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