Black holes are endlessly fascinating phenomena. Whether they’re ripping through the universe at thousands of miles a second or potentially serving as portals to alternate realities, physicists amateur and professional alike remain fascinated with them. And there’s one, in particular, that suddenly has everyone’s attention.
Space.com has a look at a supermassive black hole (a black hole millions of times larger than the sun) that’s extremely, extremely old. Like “was around pretty soon after the beginning of the universe” old:
Astronomers have discovered the oldest supermassive black hole ever found — a behemoth that grew to 800 million times the mass of the sun when the universe was just 5 percent of its current age, a new study finds. This newfound giant black hole, which formed just 690 million years after the Big Bang, could one day help shed light on a number of cosmic mysteries, such as how black holes could have reached gargantuan sizes quickly after the Big Bang and how the universe got cleared of the murky fog that once filled the entire cosmos, the researchers said in the new study.
The most fundamental mystery is just what this black hole “ate” to become so huge. Black holes gain mass much the same way we do, by pulling in matter. The gravity is so intense that the matter can’t escape, which in turn makes its gravitational pull that much stronger. So basically these black holes either “ate” things much heavier than the sun, or simply sucked in so much gas and dust that they grew enormously. It also did this extremely fast, at least by the standards of the universe, which scientists have estimated is 13.8 billion years old. Think of it this way; a toddler basically gained the weight of a full grown adult in, like, a year. Scientists, reasonably, find this rather weird.
This also happened right around a major moment in the universe, called the reionization, essentially where hydrogen stopped messing around and became the reactive element we know and love today. So this black hole may also hold a few keys to that mystery. We’ll find out as astronomers look at it more closely.