Bursting from an ancient black hole, astronomers discover most distant cosmic jet

P172+18 is the most distant radio-loud quasar ever found. It could teach us how galaxies form and evolve.

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Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
3 min read

An artistic impression of the quasar P172+18, which contains a black hole 300 times more massive than the sun. 

ESO/M. Kornmesser

If you're fascinated by the idea of looking back in time, just look up at the sky. If you stare at the moon, you're seeing the orb as it was around 1.3 seconds ago. Pointing your telescope at Mars? You're seeing it as it was around 20 minutes ago. That's how long it takes for light to travel those vast distances across the solar system. With a big-enough telescope, you can see light from the earliest moments of the universe, some 13 billion years ago. 

Peering into a distant corner of space in 2015 with telescopes in Hawaii, astronomers found a bright and distant object from when the universe was only around 780 million years old. And it was record-breaking. Follow-up observations confirmed they'd discovered a huge jet of material emanating from a supermassive black hole that lived during the earliest epoch of the cosmos.

In a study, published in The Astrophysical Journal on Monday, the researchers detail the jet and its home quasar, which lies about 13 billion light-years from Earth. Officially, the quasar is called PSO J172.3556+18.7734, but scientists have, fortunately, nicknamed it P172+18. 

Let's step back a little, though. A quasar is a distant, bright supermassive black hole at the center of ancient galaxies. While black holes themselves are invisible, those at the heart of quasars are so massive that they draw in the gas and debris circling them at great speed in what's known as an accretion disk, heating the material up and releasing extreme amounts of energy. This makes them incredibly luminous. Quasars have been discovered that are thousands of times brighter than the Milky Way. 

While illustrations of the quasars often dazzle (like the one above), scientists only see them as a pinprick of light a few pixels wide on readouts from telescope data.

This particular quasar is a record-breaker because of the cosmic jet, which blasts out perpendicular to the accretion disk. It's only about 1,000 years old. Cosmic jets are super-high-speed material being blasted out of the galaxy's center, and they throw off a ton of energy as radio waves when they interact with the galaxy's gas. Astronomers class these types of quasars as "radio-loud" and believe the jets may help black holes grow and could play a role in how a galaxy forms and evolves.  


This elongated image of P172+18 shows the inner part of the jet

Momjian et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF

"Jets have a role in regulating star formation and the growth of their host galaxies, so this discovery is valuable to understanding these processes in the early universe," said Chris Carilli, an astronomer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and a co-author on the study.   

But only around 10% of quasars are radio-loud, and this one, at some 13 billion light-years away, is the most distant ever found. 

P172+18 isn't the most distant quasar ever found, however. That record belongs to J0313-1806, which houses the oldest supermassive black hole scientists have yet discovered and resides about 13.03 billion light-years from Earth. That was discovered by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, which is particularly adept at spotting very ancient, very distant cosmic phenomena. When NASA's next-generation James Webb Space Telescope launches later in the year, it too should help probe the early universe even more.

It's almost a certainty that records will continue to tumble.

"This discovery makes me optimistic, and I believe -- and hope -- that the distance record will be broken soon," said Eduardo Bañados, an astronomer at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Astronomy.

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Watch this: How black holes swallow light, warp space-time and blow your mind