The unexpected discovery was based on data gathered from observatories around the world.
To make things even more interesting, this appears to be a supermassive black hole - the most massive known objects in the universe, the likes of which are thought to lie at the center of all galaxies.
The black hole is 800 million times larger than our sun, nestled inside a bright object called a quasar, which is an emanating light that took 13 billion years to reach Earth. This classifies it as a quasar, and it's largely what allowed astronomers to discover it. They extrapolated from that to estimate that the universe as a whole was likely about half neutral and half ionized at the time they observed the quasar.
Since the universe is constantly expanding, distant objects are moving away from us, which stretches out the wavelength of the light they emit.
Simcoe, Bañados, and their colleagues believe the newly discovered quasar existed during this fundamental transition, just at the time when the universe was undergoing a drastic shift in its most abundant element. As the universe rapidly expanded, these particles cooled and coalesced into neutral hydrogen gas during an era that is sometimes referred to as the dark ages - a period bereft of any sources of light.
But when the black hole was formed, the universe was comprised of about 50 percent ionized (or energized) hydrogen and 50 percent neutral hydrogen. The timing and specifics of this cosmic reionization are still an open question.
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"In some sense, what we've done is determine with a high degree of accuracy when the first stars in the universe turned on", he said.
Quasars as young as this one also yield valuable information about galaxy evolution. Quasars consist of a supermassive black hole and the swirling bits of matter it absorbs.
The discovery of a massive black hole so early in the universe may give important hints on conditions at that time, which actually lead the huge black holes to form.
Geballe, who was not part of the research team, said finding out why such massive black holes existed then will help astronomers understand how the cosmos evolved.
In an effort led by MPIA's Bram Venemans, the astronomers targeted the quasar with the millimeter telescope NOEMA, operated by IRAM, in the French Alps and the VLA radio telescope array in Socorro, New Mexico. From this, they inferred that stars must have begun turning on during this time, 690 million years after the Big Bang. This means it must already have formed a large amount of stars. "Gathering all this mass in fewer than 690 million years is an enormous challenge for theories of supermassive black hole growth". Follow-up observations, as well as a search for similar quasars, are on track to put our picture of early cosmic history onto a solid footing.
Besides revealing a mystery about black hole formation, the new discovery sheds more light (so to speak) on when the first stars formed in the universe.