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

A quasar with the brightness of about 600 trillion suns – the brightest ever seen in the early universe – has been discovered by the Hubble Telescope.

Astronomers used data from the Nasa/European Space Agency’s telescope to find the ancient quasar – the extremely bright nucleus of an active galaxy created by energy released by gas falling towards the supermassive black hole at its centre.

They believe the quasar can provide an insight into galaxies’ birth, when the universe was about a billion years old.

Astronomers said it is by far the brightest quasar discovered so far in the early universe.

Catalogued as J043947.08+163415.7, it is so old the light being received from it started its journey when the universe was only about a billion years old.

In 2012 the universe was estimated to be more than 13-billion years old by Nasa’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotrophy Probe.

Astronomers said the quasar’s brightness is equivalent to about 600 trillion suns, and the supermassive black hole powering it is several million times as massive as our sun.

The image of the quasar has been magnified and split into three images by the effects of the gravitational field of a foreground galaxy
Image:
The image of the quasar has been magnified and split into three images by the effects of the gravitational field of a foreground galaxy

The data shows the quasar may be producing up to 10,000 stars a year and the supermassive black hole is accreting matter to itself at an extremely high rate, scientists said.

In comparison, the Milky Way produces about one new star a year.

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.

“That’s something we have been looking for a long time,” he said.

“We don’t expect to find many quasars brighter than that in the whole observable universe.”

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

He added: “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.”

Strong gravitational lensing caused by a dim galaxy between the quasar and the earth enabled the Hubble to spot the quasar, making it appear three times as large and 50 times as bright than without.

Data will now be gathered on the quasar with the use of the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope to try to identify its chemical composition and temperatures of intergalactic gas in the early universe.

Astronomers also hope to use the Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array and Nasa/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope, which wil be launched in 2021, to look at the supermassive black hole and measure the influence of its gravity on the surrounding gas and star formation.

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