Hubble finds record-breaking quasar with brightness of 600 trillion suns

Four lasers beam into the sky to help sharpen images taken using the Very Large Telescope. Credit ESO  F. Kamphues

Astronomers generally avoid looking for quasars in this region, because the abundance of stars and dust there drown out the faint quasar light. The quasar is one of the brightest objects in the early Universe.

The US team say the quasar, named JO439+ 1634, has enabled us to "sample light emitted from the dawn of time".

The distant quasar, a series of energy jets powered by supermassive black holes, has the combined brightness of almost 600trillion suns, astronomers say.

The quasar is powered by a huge black hole, which is estimated to be several hundred million times bigger than our sun, astronomers will detail in an upcoming paper in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The newly discovered ancient quasar, catalogued as J043947.08+163415.7 or J0439+1634 for short, is so old that the light being received from it started its journey 13 billion years ago.

It's not all bad news, however: the Hubble recently captured the brightest quasar in the early universe, the space agency revealed on Wednesday.

This massive object has a significant gravitational pull which "bent" the light and magnified it in Earth's direction.

Astronomers said it is by far the brightest quasar yet discovered in the early universe. If the lensing galaxy in this system were just half a magnitude brighter, researchers may have entirely missed the quasar.

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Lead author Xiaohui Fan, from the University of Arizona, said he did not expect to find many quasars brighter than this in the entire universe.

Less than a billion years after the Big Bang, a supermassive black hole began devouring anything within its gravitational grasp; this triggered a firestorm of star formation around the black hole; a galaxy was being born; a blowtorch of energy blazed across the Universe.

With these telescopes they will be able to look in the vicinity of the supermassive black hole and directly measure the influence of its gravity on the surrounding gas and star formation.

Thankfully, private companies are rallying round to investigate the Hubble cockup, and in the meantime the space 'scope is still making observations with its working instruments.

The Hubble data show not only that the supermassive black hole is accreting matter at an extremely high rate but also that the quasar may be producing up to 10,000 stars per year.

Co-author Fabian Walter, of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany, said it was a prime candidate for further investigation.

Known as gravitational lensing, the gravitational field bends and amplifies the quasar's light. Now they are analyzing a detailed 20-hour spectrum from the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, which will allow them to identify the chemical composition and temperatures of intergalactic gas in the early Universe. Astronomers also plan to use the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, and eventually NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, to look within 150 light-years of the black hole.

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