It seems like whenever we start to get our heads around something, the universe throws us another curveball.
Just weeks after astronomers were puzzled by an object 13 times bigger than Jupiter appearing in the Milky Way, another head scratcher has emerged.
This time, scientists are puzzling over a black hole that existed surprisingly early in the life of the universe. So early, in fact, that they don’t really know how it exists.
The supermassive black hole is 800 million times as massive as our sun and was apparently formed around 690 million years after the Big Bang.
If we think of the universe as being 100 years old, it was just five when this black hole grew to this enormous size. The first stars and galaxies were forming at this time so it is unusual for such a big black hole to exist.
“We expected as we looked further back into time that the black holes would be smaller and smaller because they hadn’t had as much time to grow,” Rob Simcoe, astrophysicist at MIT and co-author of a paper on the black hole, told NPR.
“What was surprising here was that this one seemed to be fully formed even though the universe was very young at this period in time.”
This black hole is the most distant one we have ever observed. It’s so far away that light had to travel for 13 billion years before it reached us.
Scientists discovered the black hole by using one of the Magellan Telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile to detect quasars, which are bright disks of gas and dust that orbit black holes.
“The most distant quasars can provide key insights to outstanding questions in astrophysics,” lead author Eduardo Bañados told Space.com.
“This particular quasar is so bright that it will become a gold mine for follow-up studies and will be a crucial laboratory to study the early universe.”
Scientists hope that the discovery of this black hole, so massive when the universe was just a toddler, will increase our understanding of the universe and shed new light on how it was formed.