Luckily it’s not anywhere nearby. It is in fact 12 billion light years away, which means it took that long for its light to reach us, so we are glimpsing this cataclysm as it appeared at the dawn of time, only 1.2 billion years after the Big Bang, when stars and galaxies were furiously forming.
How it got so big so quickly after the Big Bang adds to a mystery about the origin of the supermassive black holes — often weighing in at more than a billion suns — that occupy the centers of galaxies. What came first? The black holes or the galaxies?
“How they grew to such mass so early after the Big Bang is a profound puzzle for physics,” the authors say in their paper.
Today it appears as a reddish pinprick of light in the southern constellation Piscis Austrinus. It was one of many potential quasars that showed up in the SkyMapper Southern Sky Survey being performed by Dr. Wolf and his colleagues, but so do many stars. Dr. Wolf and his colleagues weeded out the list by cross-matching it with new data just released by the GAIA spacecraft, which is triangulating the distances to stars, looking for objects that didn’t appear to move and were thus very, very far away.
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AUG. 10, 2017
By Michael Roston. Produced by Britt Binler and Gray Beltran. Video by NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI).
“All this searching happened within 36 hours between a Saturday early morning and a Sunday afternoon,” Dr. Wolf recalled in an email. That evening they got to a telescope and observed their 10 best remaining black hole candidates. Five of them were drowned out by the full moon, another one was a distant quasar with a smaller black hole. “And one was this guy,” Dr. Wolf wrote in an email.
“When it was clear what we had found I had a bottle of champagne with my wife,” he said.