Mysterious monster of a black hole puzzles scientists

The farthest known supermassive black hole has left NASA astronomers and other scientists amazed at its existence.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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This illustration shows what the supermassive black hole might look like.

Robin Dienel/Carnegie Institution for Science

Beast. Goliath. Relic. Puzzling. These are all words scientists are using to describe the most distant supermassive black hole ever discovered.

A team led by scientists from MIT, the Carnegie Institution for Science, NASA and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy released new research findings this week describing the mysterious black hole. 

The black hole is located at the center of a quasar. NASA describes quasars as "the brightest objects in the universe." Supermassive black holes sit at their centers feeding on gasses.   

The researchers estimate the black hole is 800 million times the mass of our sun, which is hard to wrap your mind around. It took over 13 billion years for the quasar's light to reach us, dating it to the relatively early days of the universe at 690 million years after the Big Bang. The observations give us a riveting peek back in time. 

The size of the black hole makes it an anomaly. "It has an extremely high mass, and yet the universe is so young that this thing shouldn't exist. The universe was just not old enough to make a black hole that big. It's very puzzling," says MIT physics professor Robert Simcoe.

NASA says scientists are speculating there must have been special conditions allowing for the black hole's rapid growth, but what exactly those were is still a mystery.

Astronomers are using the black hole to learn more about the early history of the universe, particularly a time known as the reionization phase. Study lead Eduardo Bañados of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science says, "Reionization was the universe's last major transition, and it is one of the current frontiers in astrophysics."

The researchers published their findings today in the journal Nature with the title "An 800-million-solar-mass black hole in a significantly neutral Universe at a redshift of 7.5."

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