Hubble Telescope discovers ancient quasar with brightness of 600-trillion suns

Handout artist’s impression showing how J043947.08+163415.7, a very distant quasar powered by a supermassive black hole, may look close up Credit: ESA/Hubble/Nasa/M Kornmesser/PA

The Hubble Telescope has discovered the brightest quasar ever seen in the early universe, which has the brightness of about 600-trillion suns.

Astronomers used data from the Nasa/European Space Agency Hubble Space Telescope to find the ancient quasar, which they believe can provide an insight into the birth of galaxies when the Universe was about a billion years old.

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

A quasar is the extremely bright nucleus of an active galaxy and its powerful glow is created by the incredible amounts of energy released by gas falling toward the supermassive black hole at its centre.

The newly discovered ancient quasar, catalogued as J043947.08+163415.7, is so old that the light being received from it started its journey when the universe was only about a billion years old.

Nasa’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe in 2012 estimated that the universe is more than 13 billion years old.

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

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

This compares to the Milky Way which produces about one new star every year.

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

He added: “That’s something we have been looking for a long time.

“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.”

Despite its brightness Hubble was only able to spot the quasar with the help of strong gravitational lensing caused by a dim galaxy between the quasar and the Earth.

The galaxy bent the light from the quasar making it appear three times as large and 50 times as bright as it would have been without the effect of gravitational lensing, astronomers said.

Despite this only Hubble’s sharp vision allowed astronomers to discover the quasar.

Scientists will begin gathering data on the quasar including using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope to try to identify the chemical composition and temperatures of intergalactic gas in the early universe.

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