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Most distant supermassive black hole discovered

Posted: September 2, 2009

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A giant galaxy wrapped around a supermassive black hole seen as it was 12.8 billion years ago is the most distant behemoth ever found.

The galaxy is the same size as the Milky Way, but hosts a supermassive black hole that contains at least a billion times as much matter as our Sun. "It is surprising that such a giant galaxy existed when the Universe was only one-sixteenth of its present age, and that it hosted a black hole one billion times more massive than the Sun," says University of Hawaii's Tomotsugu Goto, who lead the discovery. "The galaxy and black hole must have formed very rapidly in the early Universe."

False-color image of QSO (CFHQSJ2329-0301), the most distant black hole currently known. In addition to the bright central black hole (white), the image shows the surrounding host galaxy (red). Image: Tomotsugu Goto, University of Hawaii.

While it is known that small black holes form when a large star collapses in on itself and dies, the mechanism for supermassive black hole formation is less well documented. One scenario is that several intermediate black holes merge together to make one giant black hole. These monsters continue to grow as their gravity draws in matter from surrounding objects, releasing energy from the region around the black holes. This blinding light usually blights the observation of such distant and faint galaxies.

In this study, the scientists used new red-sensitive Charge Coupled Devices (CCDs) installed in the Suprime-Cam camera on the Subaru telescope on Mauna Kea to observe the black hole known as QSO (CFHQSJ2329-0301). "The improved sensitivity of the new CCDs has brought an exciting discovery as its very first result," says Satoshi Miyazaki of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) and lead investigator for the creation of the new CCDs.

After a careful subtraction of the central light from the black hole, the residual on the right panel shows a significant detection of the host galaxy. Image: Tomotsugu Goto, University of Hawaii.

The new data revealed that 40 percent of the near-infrared light observed (at the wavelength of 9100 Angstroms) is from the host galaxy itself and 60 percent is from the surrounding clouds of material illuminated by the black hole. "We have witnessed a supermassive black hole and its host galaxy forming together," says team member Yousuke Utsumi. "This discovery has opened a new window for investigating galaxy-black hole co-evolution at the dawn of the Universe."

The new results will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.