Using the Hubble Space Telescope, researchers have discovered the brightest quasar – the bright nucleus of an active galaxy – from the early universe, a feat that took about 20 years of searching. Researchers used a gravitational lens to spot the faraway object, which emitted the light observed when the universe was less than a billion years old.

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The discovery was presented at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society and will be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. The object discovered is known as J043947.08+163415.7 and shines with a brightness equivalent to 600 trillion Suns.

The brightness of a quasar comes from the incredible amount of energy released as its supermassive black hole accretes material. This material is stressed, compressed, and heated, shining across all wavelengths of light. The newly discovered quasar has a supermassive black hole that’s several hundred million times the mass of the Sun.

“That’s something we have been looking for for a long time,” lead author Xiaohui Fan, from the University of Arizona, said in a statement. “We don’t expect to find many quasars brighter than that in the whole observable universe!”

The object is truly incredible and one of the most active galaxies known. It is not only extremely bright, indicating how quickly its black hole is accumulating material, it is also producing about 10,000 new stars every year, about 6,000 times faster than our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

“Its properties and its distance make it a prime candidate to investigate the evolution of distant quasars and the role supermassive black holes in their centres had on star formation,” explained co-author Fabian Walter of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy.

This image shows the distant quasar J043947.08+163415.7 as it was observed with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The quasar is one of the brightest objects in the early Universe. However, due to its distance it only became visible as its image was made brighter and larger by gravitational lensing. The system of the lensed images and the actual lens is so compact that Hubble is the only optical telescope able to resolve it.

J043947 existed during a period of the universe known as the Epoch of Reionization. After the emission of the cosmic microwave background (the first light that shone in the universe) 400,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe was full of neutral hydrogen. This made it opaque. Eventually, something ionized the hydrogen once again turning it into plasma, but it is unclear what that something is exactly. The usual suspects are dwarf galaxies, quasars, and the first population of stars, but the limits of our observatories haven’t allowed us to solve this cosmic whodunnit. The discovery of such a quasar could help us understand what role they played during this epoch.

The team is currently gathering as much data as possible about the object. They are using several observatories such as the Very Large Telescope, which is run by the European Southern Observatory, and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. The observations were possible thanks to a gravitational lens. A foreground galaxy magnified the light of the distant quasar making it look three times as large and 50 times brighter than it is.

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