Astronomers have discovered the most distant source of radio emissions to date with the help of the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT).
Through studying the emissions, they believe the source is a ‘radio-loud’ quasar – a bright object with powerful jets emitting at radio wavelengths – which is so far away that its light has taken 13 billion years to reach us. The discovery could provide important clues to help astronomers understand the early Universe.
Quasars are very bright objects that lie at the centre of some galaxies and are powered by supermassive black holes. As the black hole consumes the surrounding gas, energy is released, allowing astronomers to spot them even when they are very far away.
The quasar, which has the designation P172+18, is thought to have been formed when the Universe was only 780 million years old and it is one of the fastest-growing supermassive black holes known to date, emitting about 580 times as much energy as the entire Milky Way.
While more distant quasars have been discovered, this is the first time astronomers have been able to identify the telltale signatures of radio jets in a quasar this early on in the history of the Universe. Only about 10 per cent of quasars are considered radio-loud.
“I find it very exciting to discover new black holes for the first time and to provide one more building block to understand the primordial Universe,” said the ESO’s Chiara Mazzucchelli.
The quasar is powered by a black hole about 300 million times more massive than Earth’s Sun and it is consuming gas at one of the highest rates ever observed.
The astronomers think that there’s a link between the rapid growth of supermassive black holes and the powerful radio jets spotted in quasars such as P172+18.
The jets are thought to be capable of disturbing the gas around the black hole, increasing the rate at which gas falls in, which could provide important insights into how black holes in the early universe grew to their supermassive sizes so quickly after the Big Bang.