This 13-Billion-Year-Old Supermassive Black Hole Is the Oldest Ever Found

Huge black hole is so old it offers a glimpse into the early universe, and so big it challenges ideas of how black holes form

Oldest known quasar
Astronomers have discovered the oldest and most distant quasar in the universe. The quasar, named J0313-1806, formed just 670 million years after the Big Bang some 13 billion light years away. NOIRLab / NSF / AURA / J. da Silva

Astronomers have spotted the oldest and most distant supermassive black hole ever discovered, reports CNET’s Jackson Ryan.

Black holes, ravenous nothings with gravitational pulls so strong even light cannot escape, render themselves invisible by their very nature. But, somewhat paradoxically, the most massive black holes create the brightest objects in the universe, brilliant discs of swirling light and matter known as quasars, as they suck down anything that gets too close.

So, this newly discovered supermassive black hole hasn’t been spotted, per se, but after more than 13 billion years, the light radiating across the universe from its accompanying quasar has illuminated the black hole’s presence in negative space. Researchers, in a paper published this month in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, named the quasar J0313-1806 and write that its animating black hole dates back to just 670 million years after the Big Bang—20 million years older than what is now the second oldest black hole ever found.

This oldest and thus most distant quasar and others like it “are crucial for understanding how the earliest black holes formed and for understanding cosmic reionization—the last major phase transition of our universe," says Xiaohui Fan, an astronomer at the University of Arizona and the paper’s co-author, in a statement.

J0313-1806’s black hole is 1.6 billion times the mass of the sun and 10 trillion times as bright, reports Ashley Strickland for CNN.

But taken along with its age, this supermassive black hole challenges existing notions of how these colossal star eaters form and grow, reports Maria Temming for Science News. Researchers thought that supermassive black holes get started with what are known as seed black holes, which form when huge stars collapse, that simply get bigger and bigger over time.

But, per Science News, when Fan and his colleagues tried to chart the supermassive black hole’s growth, their calculations didn’t fit the standard explanation. Instead, they found that even if the seed that gave rise to J0313-1806 formed just as the universe’s first stars appeared and grew at a breakneck pace, it would’ve needed to start with a mass of around 10,000 suns—several times greater than what is considered to be the maximum starting mass for these seed black holes.

"Black holes created by the very first massive stars could not have grown this large in only a few hundred million years," says Feige Wang, an astronomer at the University of Arizona, in the statement.

Fan tells CNET that a sufficiently jumbo-sized seed black hole might have formed via the direct collapse of vast amounts of primordial hydrogen gas instead of a star, or that black holes simply grow faster than we think.

“Both possibilities exist, but neither is proven,” Fan tells Science News. “We have to look much earlier [in the universe] and look for much less massive black holes to see how these things grow.”